let’s watch tv: opening ceremonies, rio olympics

Welcome back to our series of reviews of Olympic opening ceremonies. No one is more surprised than I am that this blog has lasted long enough to be writing about its second summer Olympics. (Read a review of the opening of the 2012 London games here.)

As always, notes taken during the ceremony itself, review written during the men’s cycling road race (spectacular!), and typed up and distributed while watching swimming.   This is a big one, so it’s hiding behind a cut.

This opening ceremony was expected to play to Brazil’s  perceived  strengths: vivid color and a party atmosphere. It succeeded whole heartedly on a fairly low budget, which I think probably did it a world of good. This was an opening ceremony with a comparatively high ratio of meaningful content and real fun to flash and showing off.

I’ll admit I had a personal hope for this event. I wanted it to feed my longstanding passion for Brazilian music, particularly the bossa nova. I wanted to hear the good stuff. And I did. There was an opening video montage set to a solo performance of Gilberto Gil’s iconic Tropicalia “Aquele Abraço”. Paulino de Viola sang the national anthem accompanied by his classical guitar and a football stadium full of crazed Brazilians. And of course there was “The Girl from Ipanema”, performed by the grandson of its composer, Daniel Jobim, and personified by supermodel Gisele Bundchen, taking what was supposedly her last catwalk in front of the home crowd before she retires.

The pageant was the pageant, following the history of Brazil from the origins of life through the dance of the indigenous people  through a fairly direct treatment of imperialism  and slavery to the creativity and social problems of the modern city. Highlights were the giant puppet insects and the elaborate projection system, which the organizers installed as a creative low budget/high tech alternative to more elaborate and expensive sets and effects.

The parade of nations was the parade of nations, always long and getting longer with the collapse of great empires and the fragmentation of badly designed postwar amalgamation states. There are a lot more countries now, and they all want to march. And so they should. There weren’t any notable fashion highlights, though there were a few interesting jackets and hats. (Colombia, give me your two tone straw hat, please.) Much of the interest of the parade was added by the hosts who provided some colorful new elements.

The teams were led, not by the usual blazer clad staffers carrying plain signs, but by festively dressed Brazilians riding festively decorated tricycles with rear compartments containing a rotating sign and an assortment of whimsical plants and gardening equipment.  This promoted an environmental theme and looked cute, as did the charmingly assorted local children, each dressed in white and carrying a seedling tree, who accompanied  each flag bearer. The teams were separated by small groups of costumed samba dancers and musicians. I didn’t notice until partway through that the music, which started of fairly mild, seemed to be building up to something.

We found out what that something was when the home team entered  the  stadium. The crowd went crazy, the team started dancing, and they danced  all the way to the waiting area in the infield to a blazing retro arrangement of “Brazil” (Aquarela do Brasil) itself. This was amazing, and the brief but intense all star “samba show” that followed, good though it was,  was a bit of an anticlimax.

The Olympic business was taken care of briskly and tidily: speech by the head of the IOC (boring), flag ceremony (fine), and the entry of the flame and the lighting of the cauldron  (pleasingly low key and simple). Then a few fireworks and we were out in time for the late local news.

This ceremony was fundamentally different from the festivities  in London I reviewed four years ago, but they did have one thing in common. Their high point was a video. Rio’s video didn’t have the Queen or James Bond or any corgis at all. But the tribute to early Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont (whose partisans believe beat the Wright Brothers to a witnessed first flight) was transcendent.

As the handsome hero flew his kitelike aircraft out of the stadium and across nighttime Rio to the strains of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s beautiful bossa nova “Samba de Avião” (usually translated  as “Song of the Jet”, but really just “Airplane Samba”) the effect was pure fantasy Brazil. In real world Brazil. And for just a moment, in spite of all the very real fears and problems, they were exactly the same thing.


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