Episode V: beyond popularity

Films with live accompaniment are becoming a regular experience. I don’t mean that the novelty is wearing off, at least I hope not.

But what began as an experiment has become a new revenue-stream for the Toronto Symphony, somewhere between serious programming and pops programming. Next week the TSO will be showing Episode V of the Star Wars saga aka The Empire Strikes Back (1980): four nights worth of John Williams, March 20th – 23rd inclusive.


There is a bit of a fly in the ointment, and I hope you’ll forgive me for pointing it out. The films are selected based on that most natural criterion, namely popularity. It means that many of the great classics of the screen that I fondly hoped to see simply don’t make the cut.

And so, while Apocalypse Now (1979) or Ben-Hur (1959) or The Mission (1986) or The Adventures of Robin Hood (thinking  of the 1938 Korngold version, although I’d be thrilled with the 1991 Michael Kamen score) might be personal favourites for their remarkable scores, they’re not sufficiently popular to fill Roy Thomson Hall for multiple showings.


I haven’t totally given up on my wish-list that I’ve shared with the TSO. I saw that the Los Angeles Philharmonic presented The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) a few years ago including the live participation of Danny Elfman, Catherine O’Hara and Paul Reubens (alias Pee-wee Herman): all vocalists heard in the original film. They filled the Hollywood Bowl.  Wouldn’t it be amazing to see such a thing here?

But let me get back to what I spoke of in the headline. So of course the TSO must choose popular films, but every now and then a cash-cow is also a brilliant work of art.

It happens! The Nutcracker (meaning the ballet) and La traviata (meaning the opera) are guaranteed money-makers, the perennial Christmastime programming by ballet companies all over the world and Verdi’s popular opera. But they’re also amazing works of art.

And ditto Episode V.

To misquote our pal Shakespeare, I come not to praise Lucas but to bury him. I mostly dislike the Star Wars saga

  • As a fan of science fiction novels
  • As a fan of science fiction films

The genre of science fiction film leapt ahead as though there were no gravity, flying upwards on the promise of films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) cited yesterday A Clockwork Orange (1971), Logan’s Run (1976), and later, Blade Runner (1983).  This was the genre that could address great & profound questions.

And then along came Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope (1977)

Not my hope however.

If this was science fiction it certainly was not the challenging sci-fi cited in the examples mentioned above. It was melodrama. It was a conscious throw-back to old-style serials, which might be fun after a fashion but surely shouldn’t be mistaken for science fiction. Sure I saw & heard the excitement others experienced (and would hear it over and over for various TV series), excitement I did not share.  But yes I went to see Episode IV.

The next film was the big anomaly, unique in the series.

Episode V had a new director, namely Irvin Kershner. Episode IV was written and directed by George Lucas. While Lucas wrote the story for Episode V, there are two experienced screenwriters in the picture, namely Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan, the latter the writer & director of films such as The Big Chill. So if the relationships in Episode V suddenly seem more real & authentic, if the characters suddenly seem to have rich inner lives? It might be Kasdan’s doing, although Kershner too is a big difference in the film.

I don’t pretend to know how the magic happened, only that Kershner + the writing team of Brackett & Kasdan make Episode V totally unlike any other in the series.

When I saw it, I was struck by the parallels to Wagner’s opera Siegfried.

• Act 1: in Mime’s cave, where the sword is forged
• Act II is in the forest where Siegfried meets the dragon;
• Act III sees the hero ascend a mountain, breaking Wotan’s spear, penetrating the magic fire and awakening Brunnhilde.
The Empire Strikes Back:
• we begin with a battle on the frozen planet, while the imperial forces close in, the rebels running through caves before several ships escape (including Han in the Millennium Falcon & Luke in his own fighter accompanied by R2D2)
• as in Act II of Siegfried Luke is in a forest exploring his past, as he meets Yoda and wrestles with his demons. Han & Leia hide in an asteroid field, narrowly escaping a gigantic beast not unlike Fafner.
• For the last “act” they are united in the brilliant sunshine of Lando’s city, where Luke confronts his father –just as Siegfried confronted Wotan—in a battle. Luke does not, however break his father’s spear but instead is himself injured, rescued at the end, while Han is given to a bounty hunter.

As in Wagner’s Ring operas, there’s a web of themes, leit-motifs, that help tell the story. The orchestra is like a Greek chorus, adding layers to what we see onscreen and hear in the screenplay.

This example (with music and no visuals) shows just how powerful Williams’ score is.

The seriousness of this film is what really captures my attention. Williams rises to a higher level in this film possibly because the story demands more of him than any other in the series (although we have yet to see the finale). We’re not merely hearing musical enhancement for events and battles, but something more, the music elevating the action to something comparable to Wagner’s mythic music-dramas.  As in so many of Wagner’s operas, the action concerns the drama of our interior life.

That’s why I am so eager to see Episode V on the big screen with live orchestral accompaniment. I’ve seen this film easily 20 or 30 times, if not more. I know every line, every note of the score. And I’m sure I am not alone. This film works at a higher level, not merely melodramatic but operatic.

If there are any tickets left you should try to go see one of the showings next week, played live by the Toronto Symphony at Roy Thomson Hall.

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