Musings About Music In Film

Snakes (A)Live! Raiders at the Royal Albert Hall (March 2016)

If adventures has a name, it must be… Indiana Jones. This promotional slogan attached to 1984’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is as true today as it was back in 1984. The epic four day marathon of Raiders of the Lost Ark in Concert at Royal Albert Hall in London has now ended and audiences seemed to have enjoyed this classic film immensely when accompanied by a live simultaneous performance of full symphony orchestra. It’s amazing how this 1981 films hasn’t aged a day since its original release. In a way, it might be even more endearing now than it was back then, mostly thanks to now-dated special effects. The score itself by John Williams needs no introduction. It is one of the most recognisable pieces of film music of the 20th century and one of composer’s finest works for a blockbuster title. He managed to create an entire world in those 80+ minutes. The ominous and exotically humid opening sequence in Peru, the romantic feistiness of Marion, the religious epiphany and Golden Age splendour of Ark’s theme, the harsh Nazi chords, several exciting action setpieces… This music has it all. And, of course, the crowning ingredient would be the famous Raiders march, which, to this listener, always sounded curiously British in its harmonic progressions. The music rides a fine line between earnest raw adventure and slight tongue in cheek slapstick. The terrifying snake sequences belong in a horror film, but the score is also full of jokes. Marion's puff of cigarette smoke hitting Toht's face is scored to the perfection, for example. While all the three sequels provided classic music, none of them were quite as successful in finding that right balance between serious and ridiculous. But then, each sequel was sillier than a previous one, so there's that.

With the popularity of The Lord of the Rings live to projection concerts, it became somewhat of a trend to perform the complete film score on stage while the full film (minus a musical tracks) is projected on large screen above. Pretty much every musically notable title is receiving this kind of a treatment these days, and what a treat it is for cinephiles. The conductor Ludwig is somewhat of a superhuman when it comes to directing these things. No one can possibly count how many times he’s done it by now... and there is still more in the pipeline. As with most concerts conducted by Wicki, Raiders of the Lost Ark in Concert premiered in Lucerne, Switzerland. Now, it starts its tour around the world and Royal Albert Hall performances are one of the first to be presented abroad. And what a fine venue this is for performances like these.

For the purpose of an orchestral performances, the film was divided into two parts. The first act does end just when Indy is starting to dig for the Well of Souls after discovering its location. After the short intermission, film music enthusiast were surprised to hear ‘The Adventures of Mutt” from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull as an overture to the second act. It’s a curious choice, given that it has nothing to do with Raiders of the Lost Ark, save for the few token references Indy’s theme. I suppose it’s good they didn’t choose yet another rendition of the title march, given how many full-throttle statements are featured in the score’s second half. It's also nice to hear a brief segment of unreleased music for the scene in which the Ark is burning off Nazi symbols from the crate holding it, and also affecting rats' behaviour aboard Katanga's ship.

If there is one regret to be had is that neither of the live performances featured a live choir. While not that prominent throughout most of John Williams’ score, it was a nevertheless a crucial element to some key sequences related to Ark of Covenant --- the map room and finale scenes in particular require that extra “godly” energy. The film as presented at the Royal Albert Hall featured some slight choral (or choir-like) effects but they were barely audible.  Still, orchestral performance was so strong on its own that no one but the most ardent would probably even notice the absence of  a vocal group.

The playing was so good and live mix so enthusiastic that sometimes John Williams' music would literally overwhelm the dialogue and sound effects tracks. Fortunately, as usual with these type of concerts, film came with subtitles so that the audience doesn’t keep a track of the plot in case something like this happened. All the musicians of the 21st Century Symphony Orchestra must be commended for their incredible stamina and energy. While the legendary London Symphony Orchestra performed the music in the actual film, they would only need to focus their energies on short segements of music at any given moment. Which is exactly the opposite to what happens in these concerts. The young Swiss musicians were performing the entire score twice a day for four days. And it isn’t the easiest music to play, even in the most controlled of environments. The second act especially features the amazing setpieces like ‘The Airplane Fight’ and ‘The Desert Chase’ and brass performances during those scenes were absolutely stunning.

Live to projection concerts like Raiders of the Lost Ark in Concert are now becoming a norm and are particularly interesting to all film music enthusiasts. Some related events (like the Kraków festival) always feature at least one performance like this each year in their programme. And London's Royal Albert Hall is a go to venue for all the prime titles out there. If you are an Indiana Jones fans and there is a concert like this being announced somewhere in your area, it should be a no-brainer that you buy a ticket straight away (given how fast they sell out). The craft of John Williams' writing is on full display and film music doesn't get much better than this.

-Karol Krok