Raiders: Williams & the matter of popularity

The recent fad for films with live accompaniment is shining a light on artistry that has often languished in obscurity.  Oh sure, film music composers are well paid, especially someone like John Williams, composer of the score for Raiders of the Lost Ark: the film shown tonight in a partnership between TIFF & the Toronto Symphony.  But in a normal screening, or watching a film on TV, who notices the film’s music: other than a nerd?

(guilty as charged)

I hope this new way of seeing film catches on: which is to say, I hope that the TSO does a whole lot more of this, because I think they’re merely scratching the surface.  Tonight the energy was electric.  When conductor Steve Reineke referenced the TSO a couple of times he reminded me of the announcers at a ball game. It wasn’t “Your Toronto BLUE JAYS” but rather “Your TORONTO SYMPHONY”, and the cheer was every bit as boisterous and unanimous.


Conductor Steven Reineke

The partnership between the TSO & TIFF is very neighbourly.  When I see a film at the TIFF Bell Lightbox I park under Roy Thomson Hall, just a couple of blocks away.  Yes there will be more films at RTH next year, and maybe somehow the favour can be returned, if TIFF opens up to some sort of music there (as we saw recently from Against the Grain).

It’s worth itemizing differences, the ways in which live showings re-frame and re-invent the usual experience of film.  Reineke presented this to us as a concert, and in a real sense that’s what it was, accompanied by powerful visuals on the screen looming over the stage.  In the cinema, while the music may still be “there” in some sense, it comes from invisible sources on the film, and it’s recorded rather than live.  The liveness is a big deal. I heard a couple of fluffed notes that I cite not to complain, but rather to celebrate the magic of liveness, like the blemishes on the face of a model: before they’re photo-shopped out of the image.

In this live context, the dynamics are totally different.  While we have the spoken voices available –and they can turn the volume up ridiculously high to ensure we hear every deathless word from Harrison Ford or Karen Allen—those are always going to feel canned, fake, artificial, when compared to the music.  And what the TSO played is mostly much louder than what you get on the DVD or in a normal cinema, where the levels are all adjusted and mixed to suppress the orchestra except at a few climactic moments, such as when the heads are melting.  But this was like an oratorio, as the music-making took the space and made something celebratory out of the film.  Even the silly set-pieces –I hate the truck chase, with all those killed soldiers, although I quite like the chase scenes through the market place, complete with a quasi-Egyptian music for atmosphere—can become serious when the orchestra is playing with such intensity.

And that’s another thing that is truly different.  In Raiders–that is in any film presented in the usual way– normally you are hearing recordings of music made from sessions assembled into a quilt, bits of music patched together.  But live? Those brass players only have the mouth they brought to RTH for the 7:30 beginning, even though they have several powerful sequences that they must somehow survive, lips intact.  Nevermind Reineke, who worked his butt off, with only the occasional silence studded through the two hours of the film, the players had a very full evening’s work.

I am hopeful that this kind of programming will bring a new audience to the TSO, intrigued and bemused by the familiar and the popular.  I am reminded of another critical frontier, namely the question of popular operas, lambasted in some quarters even though they are a guaranteed success at the box office.  The most notorious of these is coming to the Canadian Opera Company, namely Puccini’s Tosca, the opera that Joseph Kerman & George Bernard Shaw are both known to have loathed.  Nevermind their objections, they represent a similar issue to what we see in Raiders, a popular entertainment. It’s as though the critical acclaim is in inverse proportion to box office success.

And yet what Puccini accomplished in Tosca or what John Williams pulled off in his score for Raiders is far from easy.  If it were so simple to replicate lots of other composers would do so: and Williams wouldn’t be a multi-millionaire, in demand for what he does in films such as Jaws or Star Wars.

But at least TIFF & the TSO have discovered the magic of these live concert-showings.  The effects were heightened tonight, the snake music snakier, the love music more romantic.  And the closing credits, when we hear that main theme –a march, ringing out from the whole orchestra—was like that popular song played at the close of a rock concert, where everyone knows the tune, and explodes into rapturous applause at its conclusion. When I went to the washroom afterwards it was uncanny how almost every single person –not kidding!–was humming or singing that march tune aloud: infected with Williams’ ear-wurm.

As with Tosca we’re talking about something well-known that can’t miss, can’t fail.  When everyone knows what’s coming that doesn’t invalidate the experience, but rather makes it almost like a public ritual, comparable to hearing the national anthem or a hymn.  We see something similar when we get to the Hallelujah Chorus and everyone stands (however lame that might be), every note and word known to everyone present.

I’m looking forward to more of the same, more films with live orchestral accompaniment from the TSO, and yes, Tosca from the COC.  Serious art has its place, but that doesn’t mean we should avoid the works that move us, the works we know and love, music that is so well written that it can’t miss.

This entry was posted in Cinema, video & DVDs, Music and musicology, Opera, Reviews. Bookmark the permalink.

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