LONDON — The closing ceremony was never going to be as exciting as the opening night, when the games were still ahead and medals still to be won. But producer Kim Gavin's "Symphony of British Music" seriously underachieved yesterday. The show was a pageant of the country's greatest hits and not-that-great recent musical products, acting out a history of British pop from John Lennon to teenage sensation One Direction. It was as if everything that hadn't made it to Danny Boyle's "Isles of Wonder" had to be crammed in this three-hour slot. As a result, the joyful organized chaos of two weeks ago degenerated into cacophony, and the celebration of national icons descended into caricature.
The stage was a giant, spin painting-like Union Jack — courtesy of Damien Hirst — dotted with some of London's most recognizable landmarks: Big Ben, the London Eye, and Battersea Power Station. The young Emeli Sande, who had already featured in the opening ceremony (and was once described by X Factor maverick Simon Cowell as "his favourite songwriter at the minute"), opened the show with a mediocre offering, that, sadly, set the tone for the evening. Forty Stomp dancer-percussionists quickly followed, along with actor Tim Spall who popped out of Big Ben as Sir Winston Churchill to recite Caliban's famous lines from Shakespeare's "The Tempest" — the very same lines declaimed by Kenneth Branagh during the opening ceremony. This magical incantation could not rescue a production already going downhill.
Trucks started circling around the stage, and things temporarily looked up with Madness, who played for groups of dancers enjoying a very British kind of street party. The Royal Guards performed Blur's "Parklife," and the Pet Shop Boys, on futurist orange rickshaws, were also promising. Then One Direction took the stage with their worldwide hit "What Makes You Beautiful."
Even numbers virtually guaranteed to succeed missed the spot. A chorus of young children singing "Imagine" took a creepy turn when the specter of John Lennon appeared on a giant screen to accompany them from beyond the grave. Yoko Ono's sculptural intervention, a behemoth face of her late husband constructed from grey blocks held by a crowd of performers, brought the uncomfortable suggestion of a Soviet-style cult of personality to the stadium.
The great David Bowie was only represented by a 30-second "best-of" video montage and "Fashion" played to accompany a catwalk of supermodels, but George Michael got more than his share of time, performing two numbers, including his newly released and entirely banal "White Light." By next morning, the Twittersphere was abuzz with talk of "second song-gate." Jessie J, Tinie Tempah, and Taio Cruz also outstayed their welcome, cruising around the stadium in convertible Rolls Royces — a real symphony of bling. Only Russell Brand was missing to complete the picture, it seemed — but sure enough, he arrived on a psychedelic bus, singing "Pure Imagination" from the 1971 musical film adaptation of "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory."
It must say something that the highlight of an international event of this scale and ambition was a Spice Girls reunion. But there they were, Sporty, Baby, Scary, Ginger, and Posh, back together like in the old days, Victoria Beckham struggling to maintain her post-Posh persona while wiggling on the roof of a black cab. With "Isles of Wonder," Boyle showed that an Olympic ceremony didn't need to be traditional to be exhilarating. Gavin too took the break-the-mould approach, but without the imagination to pull it off.
To see images from the London 2012 closing ceremonies, click on the slide show.