STAR WARS: A MUSICAL JOURNEY (UK CONCERT)
Music by John Williams
From LUCASFILM LIMITED and ANOTHER PLANET TOURING PRODUCTIONS.
Conducted by Dirk Bosse, and played by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Two performances at the London Docklands O2 Arena-10th and
11th April 2009
A Review of first night worldwide premiere-10th April 2009, by Scott Weller
Fans opinion of the STAR WARS SAGA may change like the constant tide of the sea, but there is one pure, truthful universal ingredient to it that everybody adores-the music of its composer-the legendary John Williams. Now, to celebrate his momentous work in creating a body of work for six films over thirty years plus, LUCASFILM have launched a worldwide tour of his wide ranging and emotive compositions- STAR WARS: A MUSICAL JOURNEY. Previously conceived and released as a special DVD, introduced by
Ian McDiarmid to co-incide with the completion of the film series with REVENGE OF THE SITH back in 2005, and accompanying that films soundtrack, A MUSICAL JOURNEY has now been expanded and revised in certain areas and brought to life as a spectacular major league orchestral tour, starting in London for it’s premiere leg, with the ambitious challenges of bringing Williams’s downright unforgettable scores to reality in this new arena being given to the popular Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, in the presence of eleven thousand people across two nights at the 02 arena in London Docklands-a modern stadium setting worthy of housing such an interactive orchestral event of both visual and audio scale.
Accompanied by my good buddy/ fellow AFICIONADO contributor
Ian Trussler, both us and the assembled audience were in the STAR WARS zone from the get-go, as the defining THX sound effect noise started, followed by Alfred Newman’s unforgettable 1954 opening TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX fanfare-things just wouldn’t be the same without it! Then, the expansive orange curtains disappeared into the heavens above and revealed the mighty stage area and the massed ranks of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and behind that the amazing STAR WARS logo going into infinity on its own mighty viewscreen (costing a staggering $4 million, and one of the newest pieces of visual technology to be created in the world), as the saga’s legendary fanfare echoed through the auditorium to great applause and some more than appropriate background lightsaber waving.
After the top secret work involved slowly leaked out by STARWARS.COM and the UK’s JEDI NEWS site, at the legendary George Lucas stage at Elstree Studios (nice to see it being used for something worthy for a change rather than just acting a as a house/base for the BIG BROTHER reality series!!), I was probably expecting a bit more interactivity between the stage, orchestra and the fans- perhaps a bit like the recent DOCTOR WHO TV series Proms event at the Royal Albert Hall, where some of the popular companions, monsters and robots came out amongst the fans/audience-alas it was not to be-I think that LUCASFILM were going for the more straight forward and noble ideal of the music, and the visual clips around it, being everything for the fans to savour, and not having anything else distracting from it.
Introduced by old Golden Rod himself, Anthony Daniels reveled in the exclusive opportunity offered to him, and adding it to his highly successful Master of Ceremonies CV. Indeed, Daniels was totally in his element-he may not have the subtlety of
Ian McDiarmid’s acting and delivery as the replacement narrator for the musical experience, but his own individual acting training and presentation skills, alongside a different yet inspiringly emotive performance, held him in almost equally good stead, and he provided a commentary and iconic storytelling platform that was just as compelling and necessary an interpretation to the telling of the six film series story that was needed for a show/event of this kind, adding the right touch of humour, drama and a little bit of camp overplay to his narrative that I, and I think the majority of fans, enjoyed. He did a great job. And, in a moment that would have made Gypsy Rose Lee proud, later cheekily revealing his gold waistcoat under the second of his two tuxedo changes of the evening- a fun move that brought much cheer from the audience.
As for the reputation of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra itself in the way they brought the film score experience to life, I’d say that, considering that they apparently only had a rushed week of rehearsals to get themselves into shape, they acquitted themselves well for the most part in their playing to the backdrop of clips and dialogue. I can’t say that I’d been a great fan of their previous orchestral renditions of STAR WARS music on various other film LP/CD compilations I’ve heard over the years (I recall one seventies effort that was pretty poor)-to me, the LSO are definite and unbeatable-they have that sound that just resonates- but, as with the aforementioned pressures and the fact that it was a live performance concert-with no attempts for re-takes (unlike Williams and the LSO, who, when recording would have had multi takes to get things perfect), these guys and gals worked their strings off! For me, there must be special mention made of the RPO violin section, they really stood out for me-their part in the closing stages of the STAR WARS opening theme I found highly pleasing, and also the trumpeters got better as the night progressed-no easy task considering how good their LSO section counter-parts are.
I personally felt that the first half of the show was the best and was pretty much the most consistent quality wise from the orchestra, with notable playings such as Anakin’s EPISODE I theme (aka A Hero Rises) and Across the Stars (aka A Fateful Love)- the RPO seemed at their best in these quieter moments, rather than some of the heavy league action sequences, which felt much slower orchestrated and less excitingly handled than when they were originally brought to life for the films by the LSO In counter-balance, though, the RPO did do a terrific job with the opening titles and the closing EPISODE III fanfare medley from AMJ (A New Day Dawns), which incorporated STAR WARS’ end ceremony/Luke, Leia and the Force themes. A MUSICAL JOURNEY’s first act ended with distinction, however, with their interpretations of the epic A Hero Falls (with the choir used for it’s distinctly apocalyptic stirrings being more audible this time around than they were for the previous Duel of the Fates (known in AMJ as Dark Forces Conspire), which hadn’t as booming and atmospheric as I’d hoped-perhaps due to incorrect mixing as they were singing?) and then An Empire is Forged, which triumphantly launches us into the Classic Trilogy of Rebellion against Empire in the second half. By now, I felt that orchestra had clearly hit their stride and were enjoying themselves.
The footage accompanying the music was primarily everything from the A Musical Journey DVD, with additional EPISODE III material incorporated to finally give it the unified feeling that it deserved (of note, was additional linkage added to the Yoda and Leia themes, and extra Hayden Christensen clips as Anakin from EPISODE III, skillfully incorporated into the later A Life Redeemed score). Of the new music added to AMJ, however, Anthony Daniels must have been thrilled with the new compilation titled Droids, though, with its predominant use of Classic Trilogy clips, it did seem a little awkwardly shunted in at the first half of the event’s Prequel material. On the Prequel note, which I thought had been under-represented on the original CD of AMJ, I was happy with the inclusion of Williams mighty Podrace fanfare, which was extended out in it’s running time (presumably composed by Williams in 1999 but just cut down for the original music release). This was a very good effort from the RPO though I think it would have been even better if they’d also incorporated some of the race’s thrilling climactic music as Anakin tries to re-gain lost ground on Sebulba after his pod is sabotaged (a piece of music popular enough to be re-used for various action moments in ATTACK OF THE CLONES and REVENGE OF THE SITH, too).
Presented in majestic quality on one of the biggest screens of its kind, of watching and thrilling to the Saga’s visual footage it was interesting to note how strong the picture quality was for the Classic Trilogy (the clips all from the controversial Lowery re-mastering for the DVDs in 2004). Despite some over colour in the skin tones, the pictures were so sharp from where we were (near the front facing the stage) that you could see all the spilled drink on Artoo’s head from when Threepio bumps into him on Jabba’s Sail Barge in JEDI, all the control panel instrumentation behind Luke where he kicks a cart wheeling Vader down the stairs (again in JEDI), the clarity of the five Imperial Walkers beginning their attack from the first ridge in EMPIRE, incredible clear blue eyes for Mark Hamill, and see depth and rear detail to the cantina in STAR WARS that I hadn’t noticed before. The Prequel copies for CLONES and SITH were even better and beautifully presented. Sadly, time has not been kind to the non digitally restored THE PHANTOM MENACE clips, and they truly stuck out like a sore thumb at times, with lots of grainy pictures and matted colour-we loved the quality of the movie on it’s original laserdisc and DVD release, but the screen showed flaws that will need to be corrected-it will have to be totally rescanned and re-mastered for any future Blu-Ray disc so as to bring it into line with the quality of the other recent re-masters. LUCASFILM, ignore these words to your peril!
Apart from the opening and closing fanfares, though, there were times when the clips composition, as with the original AMJ DVD, was ultimately distracting and uncomfortable when mixing both Trilogy clips into each other. I didn’t like the Gungan battle suddenly breaking into the video for the finale Endor battle (A Sanctuary Moon) - I gather the AMJ creators were trying to stick to the one saga tone poem ideology, as to Lucas’s remit, but it didn’t totally work. Interestingly, of all the clips shown, despite STAR WARS as the launch pad of it all, it was everything related to THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK that really stood out and worked with the music-the drama of that well made film has probably been the cornerstone for everything that has followed.
After the short intermission, of which the arena was filled with varying Ben Burtt created STAR WARS sound effects, the second half started on a quirky, but out of sequence note with the asteroid field chase (like the AMJ DVD, known as A Narrow Escape, it also unwisely incorporated clips of the asteroid chase from EPISODE II), but this RPO rendition and the subsequent “Here they come!” (A Daring Rescue) didn’t have the necessary oomph factor at all, and were far too slow-not having the edge of your seat rush of adrenalin excitement and orchestral energy to match the original LSO recordings. Yep, those two tracks were a bit of a disappointment, I’m afraid, as was the later The Cantina Band medley (known as part of An Unlikely Alliance) which, though popular with the fans (especially the younger audience members), I felt it was a little bit off and just didn’t work.
A couple of mistakes also littered the production-some small ones which we’ll forgive as these things always happen on a first night, others we won't- according to some fan forums, some of the music was deliberately truncated (especially the Luke and Leia theme from JEDI)-NOT GOOD! And at the end, amongst the titles fanfare and photo montages, images of the posters for the six films and the time period in which the movies were scored were shown on screen-sadly, despite revealing it’s recording period and a photo of John Williams conducting at one of the sessions, they seemed to have completely missed the poster art for REVENGE OF THE SITH! Additionally, the laser holograms shooting out from the stage at varying points were sadly nothing new or ground-breaking, either-just a bit of titillation- and were probably nicked backstage from an old Phil Collins/ GENESIS concert. Although, on a more positive note, it was a nice idea of have the side areas projecting close up images of the orchestra, characters and ships while the RPO was in full swing, and the lighting of the event during certain parts of the video clips was very atmospheric and brilliantly handled.
Despite the niggles, things fortunately perked up once again. As with many other performances I have seen in concerts over the years, orchestras seem to respond well to the Forest Battle music from JEDI (seen in AMJ as A Sanctuary Moon) - I think its because of the way the score builds towards that dizzying finale (also brilliantly used at the end of one of the 2002 EPISODE II trailers) - and the RPO was no exception, clearly showing that same enjoyment of bringing it to life.
With two mighty bursts of appreciative applause and a standing ovation (amongst the STAR WARS dignitaries in the private boxes watching the event were old faves like Warwick Davis (who, with his family, were earlier spotted amongst the fans being given a tour of the next door prop exhibition) and the master Bounty Hunter himself-Jeremy Bulloch, whilst, mixed in with the audience, we even got a chance to see LUCASFILM’s Big Boss/Event Producer Howard Roffman and his entourage a couple of rows ahead of us enjoying the fun of it all!!), A MUSICAL JOURNEY would end on a strong note with A Life Redeemed and the aforementioned finale A New Day Dawns, but for many fans their night of total immersion in Lucas and Williams universe was still young-there was still much more merchandise to buy (all of varying price and quality-some better than others) and still many more costumed characters wandering around the O2 dome to have photos taken with. In addition to the films and their scores, the STAR WARS “experience” is also forever!
The joy, excitement, wonder, beauty and horror of the STAR WARS SAGA brought to life by John Williams is a staggering and varied accomplishment that we will eternally owe him a great debt for. So was this the ultimate celebration of his decades enduring work for STAR WARS? I would say no-not just yet. For that ultimate experience, and ultimate tribute, that would need the great man himself in the conductor’s podium, with the LSO bringing the vision and beauty of those majestic song sheets of his to life. But, considering the apparent lack of UK preparation time for the event, and what should have been more clarification and continuity on the clips used so as to make things flow better visually with the music, what we got on from the RPO, under the enthusiastic and commanding conducting of Belgian conductor Dirk Bosse, was a noble effort that brought much happiness to mine and other STAR WARS fans hearts, young and old alike, for its one and a half hours duration.
In honesty, I think the event could have cheaper ticket prices in this age of the recession (what is these days!!), and, though a lovely item, £15 for a commemorative programme was very steep!!, but it was still a terrific night out and one that had, and will have as it continues touring, STAR WARS fans of all ages blood racing when they see their favourite heroes and villains return to big screen film life in front of them-there was a very palpable thrill seeing the films, even in clips form, on a big screen again, and a feeling of nostalgic love for the characters, especially the Original Trilogy faves, when their first appearance sections came on with their musical accompaniments. For that, STAR WARS: A MUSICAL JOURNEY was more than a success.
To have the all important launch of such a history making event in this country is enough in itself to make this UK STAR WARS fan feel rightfully proud, and I hope that it is a success on its second night here and in its later journeys to Europe and afar. The music of STAR WARS, and the music of John Williams, know no boundaries and will always be totally accessible to ages young and old. Wherever you go there will always be the possibility that someone somewhere –in an office, on the street, or on the roof at the top of the world- will probably hum at least a small amount of one of his works, or remember a moment or a time-something- that will instantly remind them of STAR WARS.
AFICIONADO RATING: It may not have been totally perfect, but worldwide STAR WARS fans, fans of John Williams work in general, and anyone who loves great orchestral music is in for a treat when this ambitious experience eventually comes your way. 8 out of 10
TOUR PROP EXHIBITION NOTES
In addition to a great audio/visual experience on the O2 stage, we mustn’t forget to mention the nearby exhibition area which drew huge attendances from both fans and non-fans alike, containing far more props and displays than was originally indicated by STARWARS.COM-amongst the new mask/costume displays were Plo Koon and Kit Fisto (who some obvious non STAR WARS fan ladies, just wondering about the O2 Arena shopping interior, considered him to be quite repulsive), as well as a much better Chewbacca the Wookiee costume replica than I had seen before, a Neimiodian Sentry Guard from Mustafar at the end of EPISODE III. Other old favourite props and costumes included EPISODE I Queen Amidala and two handmaidens, Palpatine’s reptilian-like grey skin/costume from the beginning of EPISODE III, a noticeably replica Boba Fett costume and an equally fake looking Yoda, Darth Vader (like Yoda, always a big draw), Red and Blue Imperial Guards, and an Imperial Officers uniform from EPISODE III, as well as numerous surviving Classic Trilogy helmets and other pieces. Additionally of high note, there was some of John Williams rarely seen original sheet music, and further interesting material specially created for the AMJ event by LUCASFILM, including backdrops re-photographed from the matte plates housed in their archives, that people could pose in front of, and other rare video footage featuring photos, behind the scenes filming (including some rare EPISODE III digital overlaying work (like the Dooku/ Anakin/ Obi-Wan duel re-match)- similar to what’s been seen in the ILM test/show reel footage on the Prequel DVDs) and storyboards (especially Joe Johnston’s work from STAR WARS) that I’d never seen before. By far, this was a much worthier display to anything that had been presented a few years back at CELEBRATION EUROPE!