John Williams brings film scores to life at Hollywood Bowl

Friday night, I fell asleep watching E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, a movie I hadn’t seen in many moons. I was hoping to un-jade myself ahead of the John Williams: Maestro of the Movies 40th Anniversary Performance at the Hollywood Bowl the following night, one of three back-to-back nightly performances. E.T. was one of a couple of Williams-scored films I picked to get me in the right headspace.

The next morning, I texted a friend who would be accompanying me to the show. “I need to re-watch the ending.”

Well, boy, did we ever get the chance to re-watch it Saturday night. Not only did we experience the maestro, as advertised, lead the Los Angeles Philharmonic in performing one of the most evocative movie themes ever made while the denouement played before us, there was a special guest on hand to introduce it.

“Film music gives every moment on the movie screen a lift in a direction to traffic all of our emotions. When a staggering performance fills our eyes with tears, the right score can make the tears fall,” a be-tuxed Steven Spielberg said to a sea of awe-struck fans.

“So I can direct bicycles to fly, but music truly makes them airborne and fills them with wonder. And that’s the miracle of our shared mediums and that’s where E.T. got its soul.”

So we got our emotional sendoff scene, which was amplified by the sweet varietals of Williams-guided instrumentals, every one of the sonorous and heartfelt peaks and valleys phoning and flying E.T. home on young Elliot’s indelible red bicycle.

Of all of the 86-year-old Williams’ homecomings, it’s remarkable that we were present for the first time that Williams succeeded in corralling his decades-long friend and collaborator into his first Hollywood Bowl appearance.

As I mentioned in my review of Jaws at the Bowl earlier this summer, my accompanying friend is a filmmaker and Spielberg-obsessive. For him, this occurrence was like walking down a long corridor at the end of which is a door and through that door is your creator sitting on a chair, accompanied by his other dimensional half. He said that.

Spielberg drew a celestial analogy himself. “In the world of physics, the universe was formed by the Big Bang, which is one flash of cosmic brilliance that lit up the heavens and created all the planets and stars,” he said in his opening remarks after his introduction by Williams.

A similar cultural occurrence took place in 1892, he continued. That year W. K. L. Dickson created the first motion picture camera in the kinetoscope. “So, if the movies are like lightning, the music written for them is thunder because there is no better marriage of mediums than film and music.”

While E.T. (1982), was the pinnacle of the evening, plenty came before, starting with a composition from Lincoln (2012).

Composing a musical theme around our “collective history,” as this piece does in underscoring the president’s second inaugural address, requires drawing a distinction from those who simply “roll off the imagination,” Spielberg said. They require “a much more tempered approach,” prominently featuring the philharmonic’s principal trumpet, Thomas Hooten, in this case.

To be honest, while it is indeed a striking and stately piece of music, I questioned its inclusion. With so many popular canonized collaborations available, we weren’t likely to find anyone dressed as Honest Abe in the audience.

I was left reeling by not getting a performance of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, another film I used to prepare me for the show. I’m told it was played the previous night. I wondered if the choice of Lincoln had anything to do with the coincidence of John McCain’s funeral the same day.

For the next piece of music, however, Williams and Spielberg did something a bit different. The two took us on a trip through the opening over-the-top sequence of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), one in which young Indiana (River Phoenix) is chased both through and on top of a circus train—twice.

The first play-through was without any music at all, rendering the scene, in Spielberg’s words, “dry, it’s dead. It’s boring. If you’re still eating—eat, drink, you have to get through this somehow.” We watched it again with the Williams composition, which indeed breathed more life into it.

Next they changed the mood completely with a mournful rendition from Schindler’s List (1993). In doing so, they departed from their usual operatic accompaniment, bringing up violinist Bing Wang for a solo strings performance. Spielberg called this score “one of the greatest gifts John has ever given to us.”

Lastly, for the finale we got the main Star Wars theme, followed by an encore of the “Imperial March” that called up a military vanguard of trumpet players, giving rise to waving light sabers across the crowd moving in synch to each rising note.

There was actually a full first half conducted by David Newman before Spielberg or Williams took to the stage. This section included music from Raiders of the Lost Arc (1981), the finale to Minority Report (2002), and then Hook (1991), that concluded with tribute pieces to Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story (1961) and On the Water Front (1954).

Bernstein was a contemporary of Williams at the Boston Pops Orchestra and would’ve celebrated his 100th birthday August 25th.

This Newman introductory section confused a patron sitting behind us who hadn’t read the program. “I guess he’s not coming,” the man said after Newman’s comments that Williams un-bastardized the genre.

This struck me, especially considering where we were sitting. No ticket at the Hollywood Bowl is cheap and there we were, virtually dead center with an awesome view of the stage. We couldn’t dream of being here among the wine-sipping and quinoa-salad elites without press tickets. Imagine paying all that money expecting to see John Williams and then being fine with someone else playing his music.

It was only when you ventured out further to the fringes that you caught sight of the type of fawning fans that make events such as this even more fun. I definitely saw at least one Indiana and a few Jedis meandering about and there were scores of folks competing for the coolest vintage shirts, whether they be Jaws, Jurassic Park, or Yoda.

Photo courtesy of LA Phil