Steven Soderbergh's “Behind the Candelabra,” which premiered Sunday on HBO, provides a restrained look at the flamboyant Liberace.The film lets viewers get to know the renowned musician and his lover Scott Thorson over the course of their-eight year relationship, and carefully takes them through Liberace's extravagant world to create a personal look at the famous performer.
At the start of the film, Liberace (Michael Douglas) and Thorson (Matt Damon) meet through a mutual acquaintance and very quickly become involved. As their lives become intertwined, arguments, drugs, and plastic surgery create rifts in their relationship.
The movie begins in the late 1970s in Las Vegas, making it campy yet historically accurate with its large cars, insane costumes, gaudy sets, and excess of glitter. Even though he has the larger-than-life persona of Liberace to play with, Soderbergh focuses on the pianist and singer's interpersonal relationships and chooses camera angles that make “Behind the Candelabra” feel intimate.
Douglas embodies Liberace so well that the extravagant character becomes tiresome as the film progresses. And Damon, though he is normally associated with powerful and self-assured characters, communicates the discomfort of a young teenager well. Douglas and Damon’s dynamic is strongest during their pillow talk, but it also works well when there’s dissonance in their relationship.
To cover eight years in two hours, the movie is necessarily fast-paced, but due to the nature of the relationship at its center, it can feel repetitive and too long at times. Still, Soderbergh’s camera work—with its quick movements and shifting angles—effectively captures the perspectives of the characters and the chaos of their scenes, compensating for the unexceptional script.
Since Liberace was first and foremost a piano player, the soundtrack is accordingly beautiful, encompassing varying styles and effectively taking the forefront when necessary. The pianos may look silly covered in glitter, but the music that comes from them is anything but.
“Behind the Candelabra” shifts tones from glitzy and public to intimate and raw, and it avoids becoming a sentimental, doting tribute to Liberace until the very last scene. But the finale seems fitting after spending almost two hours learning about Liberace’s life.
Despite all the silly costumes and the consistent relationship trouble between Liberace and Thorson, “Behind the Candelabra” is a love story set in a time when it was impossible for the protagonists to admit their love. Jealousy and compassion are not new concepts in torrid movie relationships, but this one stands out not because of Liberace, but because of how deeply the relationship affected those involved.
During the movie, Liberace asks a Las Vegas audience, “Can you see me now?” After watching “Behind the Candelabra” it’s impossible not to see him—for everything he was.