Before glitzy, high profile biopics of superstar singers and songwriters became the norm for Hollywood, director Steven Soderbergh set out to pick apart several years from the very busy, interesting life of piano player Liberace. I’m not all that familiar with the work of Liberace, all I know is he played piano and had an extreme fondness for chandeliers. That alone is more than enough background information that you need for Behind the Candelabra, which documents Liberace’s six-year relationship with Scott Thorson.
Bringing together Michael Douglas and Matt Damon to represent Liberace and Thorson is an on-screen pairing that works an absolute treat. Two vastly varied and successful performers bring to life a relationship that a general public may not know about. I didn’t know about it, and to be honest had my doubts on whether or not I would be all that interested when heading into the film. Documenting the life of Liberace, or even just a brief part of it, doesn’t feel all that noteworthy for a film. A man slapping his hands on a piano doesn’t sound all that interesting, but Soderbergh’s direction captures how talented the man really was.
Capturing such a knack for fingering keys on a piano comes not only from some of Soderbergh’s best direction to date, but also from a considerably grand and flamboyant performance from leading man Michael Douglas. There isn’t so much a slight resemblance as there is a candid reviving of Liberace’s persona and performance. Douglas makes sure to command his exaggerated lead over the film as a whole, drowning out any other characters, and rightly so. It’s one of the few times I’ve found a leading performance so captivating, to the point where I’d actively root for it to undermine the other cast members. Liberace was quite the handful by the sounds of it, so it’s only right that Douglas tears this apart in a tremendous performance.
With this hogging of the spotlight does come its obvious downfalls though. Matt Damon is more or less the focus for the final half hour of the film, but he never feels fully fleshed out, even if he is coupled with numerous subplots that never really take us anywhere. One way or another, we always work our way back to resolving the conflict with Liberace towing us through it all. Damon’s performance as Thorson is solid enough, he eventually slides his way into being the main focus of the film and that’s certainly not a bad thing. Especially when the alternative is Dan Ayrkroyd, who plays Liberace manager Seymour Heller. Rob Lowe also features as Dr. Jack Startz for a brief period of time. Neither performance on the whole adds all that much to the film aside from one or two plot driven antics, the acting itself is nothing short of mediocrity.
An interesting portion of a frankly mesmerising lifestyle comes under the brief spotlight of a director who I didn’t have all that much faith in. Douglas and Damon carry the film, with Soderbergh’s direction towing the two through a small handful of years in the life of the famous pianist. Behind the Candelabra certainly gives us a glimpse at the lavish, heart-breaking lifestyle Liberace and Thorson led, but it doesn’t offer up enough to keep me totally engaged. Still, it may be the greatest advertisement for fur coats ever created, because you can’t go a scene without them.