In most cases, film scores are secondary to the movies for which they’re composed. Though a handful of iconic scores rival their films in notoriety, or even surpass them, most movie music exists solely to communicate emotion for an audience. But what happens when film scores become the star of the show?
This summer, the San Francisco Symphony continues its Film Series with live performances of music from “The Little Mermaid” and the original “Star Wars” trilogy, presented in conjunction with the films themselves. In such a setting, film scores can be truly recognized for their artistry, at least according to Sarah Hicks, who will be conducting John Williams’ compositions from “Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope,” the 1977 classic that first introduced audiences to the now-iconic galaxy from far, far away.
“When you see a film in the theater, the music is the background and you’re not entirely aware of it,” said Hicks in an interview with The Daily Californian. “When you see the film with a live orchestra, you realize that the music is in itself a character in the movie, and that it’s a part of establishing mood and pushing the narrative along, and foreshadowing events and creating an aura.”
Largely because of the nature of live performance itself, presenting film scores live allows them to become even more immersive, and the experience becomes one of necessary escapism. And as any veteran concertgoer knows, there’s something about physically producing music that imbues any given tune with a unique humanity, an intangibility that recorded music cannot replicate.
According to Steven Allen Fox — who will be conducting Alan Menken’s classic “The Little Mermaid” score — tapping into this intangibility is essential for performing film music. The challenge, as Fox puts it, is to transcend audience expectations for what a film score can be, given that scores are typically only heard as recordings.
“I find that one of my main jobs is to make sure that, through my body language, I’m conveying to the musicians a level of emotion that should be coming through in the music — so that it doesn’t just become a flat sound as if it was a recording being played,” Fox said.
“You don’t want the audience to forget, as they’re watching the film, that there’s a live orchestra on the stage,” he continued, speaking to the importance that the musicians hold as the show’s main draw. “You want them to remember ‘I’m at a concert.’ It’s not just a movie.”
With this in mind, the emotive scores for “The Little Mermaid” and “Star Wars” are ripe for live reproductions. The classic Disney energy of the tunes from “The Little Mermaid” — the ebullient bounce of “Under the Sea” or the slick groove of “Kiss the Girl” — can only stand to be heightened through a concert performance. Likewise, the operatic qualities of John Williams’ “Star Wars” themes beg to be elevated to epic heights by a live orchestra.
The result, of course, is total immersion — film has always been an escapist form of entertainment, but the live performance of film scores creates a transportive quality that can’t be found in a movie theater. “Because you have the power of 90 people throwing this incredible sound at you while the movie is happening, I think (live performance is) a much more interactive and exciting experience,” Hicks said.
It’s not lost on Hicks that escapist entertainment bears a particular value in today’s world. In a political climate that’s relentlessly fractured and hostile, there’s something to be said about finding beauty in the transportive nature of film and music, especially through “The Little Mermaid” and “Star Wars.”
“I think (the films are) all positive messages, and those are the kinds of things I think we actually gravitate toward, that’s what we want to be surrounded by,” Hicks said.
The “Star Wars” franchise is explicitly about fighting fascism in space, a theme Hicks points out. “They’re narratives about good and evil, and how the Force, (or) what we could call love, or loving kindness … is the most important energy in the universe,” she continued.
At first glance, this summer’s film series might seem disparate. After all, what does a mermaid musical have in common with a space opera? The throughline tying the performances together is the possibility of finding some kind of solace through music — as Fox put it, the chance to “feel joy” and to “feel like a kid again.”
But perhaps Hicks said it best: “Those positive messages and the sense of hope — literally, ‘A New Hope’ — I think those are necessary in any time, especially now.”
The summer portion of San Francisco Symphony’s Film Series begins Friday and runs through August 3.
Contact Harrison Tunggal at [email protected].