I’ve been loving the live performances of film-scores accompanying screenings of films presented by the Toronto Symphony over the past couple of years. They set up a huge screen above the stage, the orchestra assembles in their usual place, but instead of being the focus of our attention, they’re almost under the radar. In fact, many of them are invisible behind the screen (depending on where you sit), obscured by the film that they accompany. Film music composers might share the same grievance as librettists, best articulated by Rodney Dangerfield, when he said he couldn’t get any respect.
And yet there’s no mistaking the challenges of Michael Giacchino’s score. At today’s first of two screenings of Ratatouille (2007), presented by Disney Concerts, we saw the TSO’s A-team. For example Jonathan Crow, concertmaster and Joseph Johnson, principal cellist, were across from one another, facing conductor Sarah Hicks in her TSO debut.
This is a 110 minute film with a short intermission, the conductor in some respects strait-jacketed by the challenges of her role following images on the big screen above, synchronized via information on a small screen on her podium before her. It helps that so much of this score is either jazzy-atmospheric evocations of French culture, complete with accordion player (who plays more than anyone else), or insanely tense chase music.
While those chase compositions are hilariously funny when coupled with the film –and had me laughing throughout—they are not easy music. Whereas the chases you usually get in a thriller will have a steady pulse –whether we’re thinking of Korngold or Herrmann—Giacchino does something incredibly daring, regularly seguing instantly from one place and its mood to another with little or no transition. And this is precisely how it must feel if you are an intelligent articulate rat (got that first part of the hypothetical? It’s a big “IF” to absorb) who is yanked from out of one place into another. We are as helpless as Remy the rat, ripped out of one milieu and inserted into another, which is what is so especially magical about this score and this film. The percussion section were hyper-kinetic conjuring up moods, four players using instruments sprawling across roughly a quarter of the orchestra’s floor-space, dashing from marimbas to drum-kits to bells and with little time to catch a breath.
I’ve seen this film many times in the decade since it appeared, a sophisticated meditation on many things, from art to food to love, and even criticism. Peter O’Toole voices the imperial food critic Anton Ego, who makes or breaks restaurants in Paris. While it’s suitable for children it never talks down to anyone, a sophisticated creation suitable for children or adults
And it dawned on me, noticing advertisements for a couple of the upcoming films in the series –Raiders of the Lost Ark in March, The Wizard of Oz sometime next year—that the best way to do such a series might be to find films we know inside out, films one knows so well that suddenly you’ll be seeing them a whole new way: because you’ll suddenly be hearing them with a live score. I had a magical experience just this past December when the TSO gave us The Fellowship of the Ring that seemed to be transformed into an oratorio by Howard Shore with wonderful live choral support. I understand that it’s not entirely up to the TSO as they have partners in the film world who prepare these films, as for instance Disney has with this Pixar classic. I wonder, will someone please prepare Max Steiner’s Gone With the Wind, King Kong, or Casablanca, or perhaps Korngold’s Adventures of Robin Hood? Ennio Morricone’s The Mission or The Untouchables? Elmer Bernstein’s Magnificent Seven or Ten Commandments. Think of your favourite film –meaning the one you’ve seen so many times you know every line, and don’t worry if it’s not necessarily what critics would acclaim as a great film. Now imagine it with the music done live. How would Moonstruck come off if all those segments from La Boheme were live in front of you? Or if you could have a live version of 2001: A Space Odyssey accompanied by live versions of Ligeti, Khatchaturian and Strauss (both of them). Okay that last one would be very difficult.
It can be surprising. You think you know how you feel about some movie seen countless times, but it’s a chance to time travel as if by magic when you revisit your response, making it new. Yes there were laughs. But there are also moments like the tearful encounter with the Ghost of Christmas Past in Scrooged. It happens to me, and could happen to you.