Sunday, 12 April 2009

o2 D2... or how I survived Star Wars: A Musical Journey

The Star Wars cash cow was coaxed – quite easily to be fair – onto the stage of London’s vast o2 Arena this weekend as Lucasfilm premiered the live spectacle that is Star Wars: A Musical Journey. The poor thing is 32 years old – in fact it’s probably a different cow, the original was served up in the commissary at Skywalker Ranch a long time ago (in a galaxy far, far away?). Age, and freshness, aside, Star Wars draws the crowds like nobody’s business and nobody does business like George Lucas. With two shows this weekend and a tour of Europe and the US to follow, the money will indeed keep on rolling in. It also means the music of John Williams will be ringing out from stages for a long time to come, which is a great thing.

You might think I’m being cynical - I’m really not; I actually have great affection for Star Wars and lapped up every possible scrap of merchandise I could afford for almost ten years. The one thing I always looked forward to though was the CDs – indeed the music of Star Wars was an early factor in my appreciation of film music. I remember saving my pocket money for months (!) so that I could purchase the ‘Special Edition’ soundtracks in 1997 (though I still mourn the loss of ‘Lapti Nek’ and the original ‘Ewok Celebration’ from Return of the Jedi). As the millennium came and went, three brand new scores had been composed and released (to varying degrees of appreciation) and with that the circle was complete; a journey had been taken by John Williams and we’ve been enjoying it ever since. Compilation albums have come and gone – though let’s try and forget ‘The Corellian Edition’ shall we? – but with Star Wars: A Musical Journey, the story of Anakin Skywalker’s colossal fall from grace and ultimate redemption is told the right way... musically speaking at least.

The stage, shrouded by a large curtain finally came to life – later than anticipated – and the members of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra drew our attention with the classic opener of many a Star Wars adventure, the Twentieth Century Fox Fanfare. And so our ‘journey’ began, with our narrator for the evening, Anthony Daniels, guiding us through with his trademark voice and an unashamedly hammy delivery. There was no denying this was a serious, dramatic affair. That said, he was a fine storyteller and the crowd went wild with every reference to his alter-ego (helped along at one point with a gold waistcoat and a brief droid-like walk across the stage).

If you bought the original soundtrack album for Revenge of the Sith you will remember the bonus DVD. Also titled Star Wars: A Musical Journey, it featured Ian McDiarmid sitting in front of the empty stage at Abbey Road Studios where he re-told the story of the saga. This live show is essentially the same concept, though expanded a little (and only a little). In fact Daniels’ script was almost McDiarmid’s word-for-word and the accompanying footage – impressively projected on an enormous screen above the orchestra – differed really very little, though it was perhaps more inclusive of imagery from the original trilogy and more finely edited. I thought then, in 2005, that the piece would make a good live concert and it does lend itself very nicely to a staged setting. The union of words, images and glorious live music always works well and there was a touch of magic about the whole affair – but only a touch.

Musically it was a bit of a surprise as the majority of the pieces accompanying the story were the usual concert renderings of the major character themes and set-pieces. A big thing was made of the fact that Williams had himself arranged his six scores into a two hour suite. It would appear the composer had little to do, save for editing down ‘Luke and Leia’ and putting together a kind of ‘Entr’acte’ for the opening of the second half, consisting of the ever-thrilling cue ‘Carbon Freeze’ from The Empire Strikes Back. That said, there were many highlights including the wonderful concert version of ‘The Flag Parade’, a barnstorming presentation of ‘The Forest Battle’, the always-moving ‘Light of the Force’ and an absolutely brilliant, note-perfect rendition of ‘The Cantina Band’. Further highlights were found in ‘The Asteroid Field’, which wasn’t the concert version but the original cue from the film featuring some fantastic blasts of Vader’s theme and the sweep of Solo and Leia’s love theme toward the end.

Get to the point Michael… Okay, if anything it was a bit too much; the music – whilst performed admirably well by the RPO – was of course mic’d and the resulting sound bellowed and reverberated around the cavernous venue, as did Daniel’s voice. The distant hoots and shouts – and believe me in a space like that they were distant – gave the whole thing the feel of a football game. The emotion of the story itself, not to mention the many nuances found in Williams’ fine themes were somehow lost in the vastness. I’ve often felt there is something awfully lifeless about an arena, which is ironic given that this particular one was full of thousands of people shrieking and many wielding Lightsabers. Intimate this was not, and a concept such as this deserves that I think.

So all in all it was something of a Rebel Assault on the senses and it has taken me a day or so to contemplate the experience – perhaps evident in my writing… Whatever I think though, there’s no denying the size and power of this rather affable bovine and while there were many ironies and contradictions evident at the o2 Arena this weekend, one moment stands out for me: As I walked around the arena before the concert I found myself behind a small family. A very small boy, waving his toy Lightsaber like a conductor’s baton, hummed very loudly – and passionately - ‘The Imperial March’ note for note… That’s the power of this music, and the power of Star Wars… I do believe both will live forever.

With thanks to Lucy Ellison at AEG Europe and David Cox at The Outside Organisation.


  1. Its a strange, sad fate that the prequel scores are taken "less seriously" somehow. We're still in the midst of Howard Shore putting out LOTR material after six years, and no one seems to have turned their noses up at that for the most part. I only hope that with time, people will take something like Attack Of The Clones as "seriously" as they do the LOTR material.

    Theres a book to be had about all six scores (and, of course, material for the Peter Bernstein, Joel McNeely and others) and how they fit, work and how the elements are the same yet different, especially in how the music functions in the original movies versus the prequels.

  2. I'd like to be the first, then, to turn my nose up at LOTR? Listening to the Williams scores at the O2 brought into sharp focus just how weak and feeble Shore's derivative music for LOTR really is.