If ever a movie score deserved the concert treatment, John Williams’ stunning work on Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back is it.
Following in the footsteps of last year’s concert performances of A New Hope, the preceding film in the legendary Star Wars saga, The Empire Strikes Back is given all of the grand orchestral trappings by the Philarmonia orchestra in the ever-stunning setting of London’s Royal Albert Hall, which continues to exist as the gold standard for films in concert which have taken off in popularity over the last few years. Their acoustics are fantastic, presentation exemplary, and as ever the stalls were as roomy and comfortable as you could want. Seeing any film, and particularly something as epic as Star Wars, in such classical, opulent surroundings just adds to the experience of enjoying such a marvellous picture on the big screen.
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The technique behind the concerts is of interest, in how stripping out the score from the film by design dulls a level of the dialogue and sound production; while it means the film has subtitles, even though you can understand the majority of what the characters are saying, it nevertheless allows the Philarmonia in this case to hold the floor with their orchestra and deliver The Empire Strikes Back in a unique way, with Williams’ composition right at the forefront. You can’t quite shut your eyes and simply wallow in the music, but they complement each other in more of a performative way than they would were you simply watching the film at home or at a standard cinema. The film supports the music as opposed to, traditionally, the other way around.
And, let’s face it, what a film The Empire Strikes Back is. What hasn’t been said or written about Irvin Kershner’s follow up to A New Hope that is worth discussing? 40 years on, Empire still reigns supreme as the best film in the Star Wars saga.
On a big screen, watching as we did here the 1997 Special Edition which pumps up the effects and adds texture to such landscapes as Bespin the Cloud City, The Empire Strikes Back is a thrilling experience. It moves like no other Star Wars movie, fusing the derring-do escape of Han Solo, Princess Leia and the rag tag crew of the Millennium Falcon as they escape the Galactic Empire’s titular strikes back on the Hoth Resistance base, with Luke Skywalker’s mythic journey to Dagobah and the ancient mentor Yoda, who trains him in the ways of the Force, before George Lucas and Leigh Brackett’s script stitches both narratives back together for a dark, open-ended finale containing one of the most iconic revelations in cinema between Luke and Darth Vader. Spoiler: they may be related.
You know all this, I’m sure. Who doesn’t love Empire? Less is sometimes said about Williams’ score, perhaps, which much like all of his other compositions for the franchise utterly makes the picture. Empire is littered with amazing cues – the classy romance of ‘Han Solo and the Princess’, set to the blooming, sparky will they/won’t they (they will) between Han and Leia; ‘The Asteroid Field’, in which the Falcon outruns the Empire, a fast and furious orchestration of brass and woodwind depicting a thrilling chase; ‘Yoda’s Theme’, a wonderfully rousing ‘Jedi theme’ of sorts in which we see the demonstration of Yoda’s mystical power; and of course the ominous and chilling militaristic power of ‘The Imperial March’, very much the signature motif for the terrifying Lord Vader. Imagine how enjoyable these are on your Spotify playlist? Magnify them tenfold with the Philarmonia, who polished everything off with a fantastic end credits suite rendition which had the audience on their feet before the final drum beat sounded.
If you get the chance to see The Empire Strikes Back in this way anywhere else, or again at the Royal Albert Hall, don’t hesitate. John Williams’ music was made for a venue like this and as magical cinematic experiences go, there is little better than this film at this venue. Bring on Return of the Jedi next year!
Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back – In Concert is at various arenas across the UK this Autumn.