On Friday, September 1, I had the great pleasure to attend a special event at the Hollywood Bowl here in Los Angeles: Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, In Concert. Here’s how it went.
Given its location in the heart of Hollywood, and its appearance in over a dozen movies, television episodes and animated cartoons, it’s very little of a surprise that the iconic 101-year-old Hollywood Bowl hosts movie nights. But what might be more surprising is that this is only a relatively recent occurrence.
In 1990, the Hollywood Bowl became “the largest outdoor movie theater” when it ran the 1952 classic Singin‘ in the Rain in front of an audience that included stars Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds. However, it would be a few years later before the on-screen music would be replaced by live music, performed on-stage by either the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra or the larger Los Angeles Philharmonic. As part of then-Principal Conductor John Mauceri’s efforts to recover lost cinematic musical scores, an innovative series of performances were launched where movie scenes were played on a giant projection screen mounted on the Bowl’s shell with only the sound effects and dialogue remaining on the audio track. The orchestra would instead provide the full musical score in real time as it played. In time, these performances became an annual feature of the Bowl’s summer programs. It was only natural, therefore, that John Williams and his music became an integral part of performances under the stars for the past three decades. The most latest being Star Wars: Return of the Jedi in Concert on Friday, Sept. 1 and Saturday, Sept 2.
John Williams was Here
As a little bit of background, John Williams has been a regular presence at the Hollywood Bowl on an annual basis even before the big screen was added. He first conducted his own film scores there in 1978. A year earlier, The Star Wars Concert was presented at the Bowl (without Williams conducting) a mere six month’s after Star Wars: A New Hope was released in theaters. At the time, the concert was noted for its inclusion of lasers as part of the show, with the LA Phil being the first orchestra to incorporate the then-new technology.
In September of 1988, John Williams conducted a concert entitled Hooray for Hollywood which, according to Don Heckman, who reviewed the concert for the Sept. 12, 1988 edition of the Los Angeles Times, “was dominated by excerpts from Williams’ film scores (and not the better known ones at that)” leading him to presciently wishing, “someone should have produced a large projection screen” for the concert. For all of his appearances at the Hollywood Bowl, it’s important to remember that he was never an official part of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, instead being the Principal Conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra from 1980-1993.
“John Williams Night” is an annual tradition at the Bowl. In an acknowledgement of his 91 years, he only conducts the second half of the concert, with composer David Newman, the son of composer Alfred Newman, considered one of the founding fathers of classical Hollywood film music style. The senior Newman took John Williams under his wing in the late 1950s, inviting the then-novice freelance session pianist to his home and helping develop his career. So it was fitting that Newman led the orchestra for Return of the Jedi in Concert.
The Return of the Star Wars
The last time a Star Wars movie was played in its entirety at the Hollywood Bowl were the twin concerts in 2018. Star Wars: A New Hope was shown on August 7th and 10th, with Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back appearing on the big screen on August 9th and 11th, allowing fans to watch the first two original films over the course of two nights. It should be noted that, in addition to the big screen over the stage, there are four additional monitors to allow the rest of the 17,376 audience members further back in the amphitheater to have a better view of the performers and films as appropriate. These were originally projection screens when added in 2005, but they were replaced with 23 feet x 13 feet (7m x 4m) LED screens which deliver greatly improved images.
As mentioned earlier, David Newman conducted the orchestra for this performance. John Williams himself appeared and performed at the annual John Williams: Maestro of the Movies concert early in July with Gustavo Dudamel, the Music Director of the LA Philharmonic sharing the conducting duties. The two even playfully “battled” with stubby light sabers and individually conducted the orchestra using them. Mr. Williams has previously noted that the Hollywood Bowl is unique in that fans bring lightsabers to the concerts and wave them (more or less to the rhythm) during the music. This applies to the patrons in the $240 seats close to the stage in the Pool Circle and Garden Boxes as well as those in the $18 seats in Sections V and X up at the top of the amphitheater. And of course, many fans dressed up. From the eldest to the youngest Jedis, (sensibly clothed) Leias and other characters were well represented.
In the hour before the concert, the Bowl hosted a trivia contest which asked among other questions, “How many people handled Luke’s lightsaber in the movie?” (The answer is five: Luke, R2-D2, Vader, the Imperial commander who brought Luke to Vader and Palpatine). Attendees also were able to pose with Artoo, Threepio and a Leia in Endor combat uniform.
At 8pm, the concert began with David Newman walking on from stage left and leading the orchestra in the National Anthem. Immediately after that, the orchestra played the familiar 20th Century Fox drum roll and fanfare (coincidentally composed by his father Alfred in 1933). This was accompanied by cheers and, of course, every light saber in the amphitheater lighting up. The cheering got louder (and light saber waving intensified) as the orchestra began the Star Wars (Main Theme) to accompany the beloved opening crawl and then seamlessly transitioning to the Imperial March as Vader arrives at the new Death Star to personally motivate the commander and workers to “redouble their effort.” Helpfully, the dialog was also captioned on the screens. Even if your hearing is perfect, you’ll find yourself picking up a line you may have misheard during an action scene.
By the time the scene shifted to Tatooine with Artoo and Threepio approaching Jabba’s palace, the audience had settled in to watch while the orchestra continued to play the background music. As the orchestra played non-stop for an hour, neither the music nor the fan enthusiasm wavered. Light sabers were lit at the appropriate times and the audience cheered the heroics, laughed at the humorous scenes and chuckled at certain well-known bits of foreshadowing. At the end of the scene were Leia and Wicket defeat the four scout troopers and head off to the Ewok village, the orchestra broke for a 20 minute intermission so that they – and the audience – could stand up, grab some water or take care of other biological functions.
Using the Technical Force
While it’s usually considered a spoiler to reaveal how the magic is done, with these movies in concerts, knowing how it’s pulled off enhances the appreciation for the technical skill that goes into these performances. It’s well known that light travels faster than sound. Over short distances, like in your living room or a theater, this isn’t a problem. But when the back of the “theater” is 600 feet (182m) from the stage (and 450 feet (138m) up, to boot the sound will arrive at the back row of the Bowl’s Section W .05 of second later than the image. While this isn’t a problem for music, it is noticeable for dialog. Despite the small amount, it’s just enough that we humans will experience it. The characters’ lips will stop moving before the audience hears them finish speaking.
The solution to this is very clever, and something the engineers at the Hollywood Bowl have perfected over the decades. The projectors for the big screen are located at the back of the front third of the amphitheater. Right in front of the audio control booth which is located below Section H. During the performance, the conductor wears headphones which give a steady beat and he also has a small display screen showing where the music should be. The result is that the performance of the music and movie’s audio tracts are about .025 of a second ahead of where it would be on the film. This splits the difference and even though the audience in front is getting the audio faster than they “should”, it’s below the threshold one would notice. And the same applies for those in the very back.
As this writer has had season tickets right behind/above the audio control booth for about 30 years, it can be said with reasonable certainty that if one plans on catching a movie performance at the Bowl, the best seats in the house are in the front half of Section H — and at nearly half the price of the Terrace box seats. For this concert we were further back. In most concerts, sitting close is optimal because you can clearly see the conductor and musicians performing their art, but for movie concerts such as this, you are too close to the stage to see the big screen so you are left watching the monitors placed on the stage — which diminishes the experience in this writer’s opinion.
Back to the Show
Rested and ready, the orchestra began playing some Star Wars incidental music before the house lights went down and the movie resumed with Han and Luke finding the wrecked speeder bikes from the carnage Leia visited upon the scout troopers. As the movie built towards its conclusive attack upon the Death Star and Luke facing his destiny against his father and Palpatine, the audience’s enthusiasm never waned, nor did the orchestra’s performance. This was even with a light, intermittent drizzle occasionally spritzing the audience on a cooling, overcast night.
By the time the second Death Star blew up (spoiler alert!), the fan’s enthusiastic cheers were even louder than when the opening crawl first appeared on the screen. Easily 5,000 light sabers were on and waving along with the cheering. And, despite the marathon 2-hour run time of the movie, the musical score was just as “on” as when the movie began. For those who’ve not seen the movie in quite a while, this presentation used the post-Attack of the Clones ending showing the celebrations across the galaxy rather than the earlier one featuring the Ewok Celebration (Yub Nub) song and with Hayden Christensen appearing as Anakin’s force ghost.
Any John Williams appearance at the Bowl is sold out, and Star Wars: Return of the Jedi in Concert was similarly a sell-out. It is a definitely different experience from seeing a typical classical movie concert or watching the movie in a theater. Starting with the obvious difference coming from a venue set in a canyon, surrounded by nature and under the stars (ok, it was cloudy that night), and adding to it the energy and enthusiasm coming from both the stage and from the seats for a film loaded with both nostalgia and epic story telling and effects that still holds up 40 years later and which is performed in fusion of live music is an experience that one would have to look far to find an equivalent.