The best things from The Phantom Menace, 20 years on

This month marks 20 years since the release of Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace.  We’ve had ample time to analyze its flaws and weaknesses (which are many), but most fans can still appreciate it for bringing Star Wars movies back to the big screen and introducing the series to a whole new generation.

Even aside from its great technical achievements, the movie does have bright spots, which Germain Lussier tallied in an article for io9.  I think it’s a great list, and I want to expand on a few of my personal favorites from it.  (The images below–screenshots of TPM–were taken from the io9 article.)

Amidala’s Wardrobe

How to top Leia’s space buns in terms of fashion?  Her mom Padmé Amidala managed to do it in TPM with a whole wardrobe of amazing dresses and fabulous hairpieces that indicated ceremony and tradition while still looking forward–a wonderful way to represent her role as queen of Naboo. Her clothing has been an inspiration to a generation of cosplayers, as well as to me, a budding fan artist at the time.  I had so much fun designing and drawing new outfits for her; you can see one here that was a bit inspired by the image above.

Darth Maul’s double-bladed lightsaber

I still remember the excitement of seeing Darth Maul extend the second blade on his lightsaber in TPM’s trailer.  It is rather impractical as a weapon, but wow, does it look cool.  It certainly allowed for some amazing choreography in the climactic fight scene with the Jedi.  I often give my video game characters double-bladed lightsabers, even though it is usually not as good as dual-wielding two separate sabers.

Bringing the EU into canon with Coruscant

Coruscant, the city planet and Republic/Imperial capital, was first named by Timothy Zahn in his Thrawn trilogy, though Lucas had developed the concept from the time of the OT.  It was shown briefly in the special edition of Return of the Jedi, but appeared properly for the first time in TPM.  The pronunciation was also cemented, with the “c” being silent.  It is just an interesting note in the world building of the SW universe, as well as gratifying for us EU fans.  There are a few other instances of this happening, but not really any as significant.

“Duel of the Fates”

John Williams’ music is essential to Star Wars, and he really brought his A-game to the prequels.  TPM has a nice soundtrack that is anchored by one of the most iconic pieces of Star Wars music ever: “Duel of the Fates” from the climatic battle scene.  It brings such energy while giving a sense of “other”ness with the chanting in Sanskrit, perfect for a fight between disciples of two sci-fi religions, like a ritual combat.  It was the first full choral piece in Star Wars, which was a great choice for impact.  And it fit so well with the on-screen action.

I’ve played a version of this piece before and boy, does that ostinato make you tired!

Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan Kenobi

Ewan McGregor had a tough job, playing the younger version of a character already established in the OT by esteemed thespian Alec Guinness.  But he really stepped up with one of the best performances of the prequel trilogy.  Obi-Wan seems like the same character, down to the accent and mannerisms.  He brings a great dry humor to the role as well, much needed in a trilogy that could be overblown at times.  Plus, this role made him my first celebrity crush!  I really used to have a life-size cardboard cutout of TPM Obi-Wan in my room (a birthday gift from my fellow Star Wars-fan friends in high school).

Obi-Wan’s emotional journey during final lightsaber battle is really excellent.  His anguish as he watches helplessly as his mentor is killed in front of him; his struggle to control his emotions instead of letting them control him; his quick thinking and fortitude that eventually help him to overcome a superior foe: it’s all there on his face and in his actions.  There’s nothing better than a fight scene that provides character development.

Do you agree with the list?  What do you think has held up from TPM?

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John Williams, Live

If I am a musician at all, it is thanks to John Williams.

John Williams, the five-time Oscar winning composer, who created the soundtracks of so many childhoods with the scores to Star Wars, Harry Potter, Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones…ok, I think you get the idea.  I listened to his music on repeat in high school.  He made me love marches, appreciate the French horn, and put me to sleep many nights with his “Hymn to the Fallen.”

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Yeah, this guy.  John Williams conducting at Hollywood Bowl By Alec McNayr (Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
I have had the extreme privilege of seeing John Williams himself conduct the world-class Cleveland Orchestra three times in my life.  Most recently, I saw him conduct the orchestra at their beautiful Severance Hall in the cultural heart of Cleveland.  I bought these tickets eight months in advance and had to purchase a subscription to other orchestra concerts to even get a chance to do so.

It was so worth it.

The evening started with “Sound the Bells! (a classic fanfare) and progressed through a series of hits until finishing with the highlight of excerpts from Star Wars.

 

There were a couple of fun surprises for me.  I was familiar with all the pieces except the Suite from The BFG, which turned out to be a charming, fantastic piece featuring a lot of flutes and the use of a tuba mute, which I don’t think I’d ever seen used before.

Tuba Straight Mute
Yeah, this thing.

Another pleasant surprise was the theme from the ’90s remake of Sabrina, which I honestly forgot he scored.  I promptly went home and watched the movie again on Amazon Prime.  I love that movie, and my husband had somehow never seen it,

I was also pleased to hear some excerpts from Jaws.  I think this is one of his scores that tends to get overlooked; everyone is so familiar with the ominous two-note shark motif that the rest of the score gets forgotten.  Check out “Out to Sea,” which is a jaunty little nautical tune.

Of course, the highlight of the night was the Star Wars music.  It was great to hear some of the new stuff, and for one of the encores they played “Han Solo and the Princess.”

The night really lived up to my expectations.  Williams is such a genial guy, and he spoke about nearly every piece.  I think he enjoyed conducting as much as the audience enjoyed listening; he said that performing with the Cleveland Orchestra at Severance Hall was a “bucket list” type thing for him.  It was just perfect that he was able to be here for the orchestra’s 100th season.

What’s your favorite piece or score by John Williams?  Can you even pick a favorite?

Sci-Fi Spectacular

Despite predictions of rain, Sunday evening was a beautiful time to catch the Cleveland Orchestra from the lawn at Blossom Music Center.

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The lawn at Blossom (2013)

I was even more excited because the program was called “Sci-Fi Spectacular!”  There’s nothing like hearing a world-class orchestra play the themes to my favorites movies (mostly, I mean Star Wars).  I first attended this set back in 2009, and it was just as great this year as it was then.

WP_001066The evening featured Jack Everly as conductor–he was wonderfully enthusiastic, even he if couldn’t remember if Superman is a DC or Marvel character–and George Takei as narrator.  Being on the lawn, I was quite far away and couldn’t see him all that well.  But he was really wonderful; he spoke about how Star Trek: TOS used scifi elements to describe contemporary human issues, and even push the boundaries of TV as a medium.  The Starship Enterprise is a metaphor for the world, and so different characters represent different parts of the world, all working together in their mission.  Mr. Sulu was to represent all of Asia, so rather than go with a name that would be tied to a specific Asian country, like “Kim” or “Tanaka,” Gene Roddenberry chose the name of a sea near the Phillipines–Sulu–because a sea touches all shores.  You can tell he’s told that story many times, but it was really well done.

Takei spoke the intro to Star Trek (to boldly go, etc.), and also later recited the speech that Klaatu gives to the people of Earth at the end of The Day the Earth Stood Still.  Which basically boils down to: Earthlings, get your shit together, but phrased much better, and it resonates even today.

The program featured no less than SIX pieces by John Williams: Star Wars’ Main Title, End Title, and Duel of the Fates (with chorus!), Superman‘s Theme, and suites from E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Stormtroopers came out onto the stage at intermission; when the orchestra returned, Everly dismissed them, saying, “These aren’t the musicians you’re looking for!”  He also managed to sneak in a quick performance of “Mad About Me,” which you may know better as the Cantina Band song.  FYI, you can play this song on the jukebox in the cantina on Tatooine in SWTOR.

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Star Trek did not get overlooked, either.  They played a medley of all the TV show themes (except Enterprise–I guess everyone wants to forget that theme), and some of Michael Giacchino’s wonderful scores to the two recent Star Trek movies.

Another fun treat was the conductor’s arrangement of various sci-fi TV themes, including Lost in Space, X-Files, The Jetsons, The Twilight Zone, and Stargate, plus some others I think I am too young to recognize.  They gave away a lightsaber to an audience member who could name at least 4 of the titles.

The program was rounded out with the iconic “Also sprach Zarathustra” featured in 2001: A Space Odyssey and the theme from Somewhere in Time, which is a movie I had never even heard of before.  The soprano Kristen Plumley also contributed her operatic voice to several of the pieces, even coming out in a Star Fleet officer’s uniform for the Star Trek theme.

And as the lights came down on Star Wars‘ End Title, the conductor’s baton lit up, and suddenly he seemed to be conducting with a lightsaber –a great ending to a great show!

 

The Olympics with John Williams

Bum bum ba bum bum. Bum bum ba bum bum.

That’s right, it’s Olympics time again!  That timpani cadence is familiar to all the millions of US sports fans tuning in to the 2014 Olympic coverage on NBC.  It’s the opening to “Bugler’s Dream” by Leo Arnaud, which has been used since 1968 in conjunction with
Olympic television broadcasts.

It’s usually followed by another piece you are sure to recognize: The Olympic Fanfare and Theme by none other than my favorite composer, John Williams (who recently turned 82! Happy Birthday!).  This piece was commissioned for the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles.  Its iconic brass fanfare has always been synonymous with the Olympics for my generation.

SummontheHeroesI’ve heard snippets of both these pieces being played as intro/outros this year as I’ve been watching the first few days of the Sochi games.  NBC is also using another John Williams piece: Summon the Heroes, written for the 1996 Atlanta games.  It’s a beautiful piece; I find it even more emotionally compelling than the Fanfare.

www.kremlin.ru
From kremlin.ru under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License, image cropped

You can buy some great recordings of these pieces by the Boston Pops, with John Williams conducting (Summon the Heroes).  I personally own the Greatest Hits collection, which I cannot recommend enough.

The NBC “bumpers” aren’t the only place the music of John Williams will pop up during these Winter Olympics: the amazing 15-year-old Russian skater Yulia Lipnitskaya is using selections from Schindler’s List for her free skate.  Lipnitskaya is always very understated with her emotions, which lends itself to this program: a small girl in a red coat, at times intense, plaintive, and childlike–I found it very moving.  Look for her to make waves in the ladies competition.

Figure skaters frequently choose movie themes for their program music.  Another skater who used John Williams’ music was Tonya Harding in 1994; her skate to Jurassic Park at the Lillehammer Olympics remains to this day one of the strangest I have ever seen: boot problems, a false start, a botched triple axel.  It only added to the strange drama surrounding her at the time.  But I distinctly remember loving the music, despite not knowing who wrote it, or even having seen Jurassic Park at the time.

 

My annual Christmas tradition got an upgrade

I am a huge Christmas person, so there are many things I enjoy doing every year…putting up a (real) Christmas treebaking cookies with my mom, watching bad TV Christmas movies, etc.

I love to kick off the Christmas season every year by watching Home Alone on Thanksgiving.  This got started when I was young, because it was regularly on TV that day.  It’s a great movie, and by now I’ve seen it many, many times.  My husband and I frequently quote it to each other; in fact, just the other day we ordered pizza and got “a lovely cheese pizza, just for me.”  We actually own 2 copies of the DVD.

HomeAlone3I didn’t watch Home Alone on Thanksgiving this year.  That’s because I had already bought tickets for this: Cleveland Orchestra Celebrity Series–Home Alone.

Last Wednesday, we got to watch Home Alone on a big screen in Severance Hall, accompanied live by the Cleveland Orchestra.  That’s right, the Cleveland freaking Orchestra.

It was a fantastic performance.  Definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me.  The orchestra was nearly flawless, and it was a nice touch that they were joined by the Cleveland Orchestra Youth Chorus for the scenes with Marley’s granddaughter’s choir in the church, and also for singing “Somewhere in My Memory” over the closing credits.

In a pleasant surprise, the performance was conducted by David Newman, himself a prolific film composer (he did a little movie called Serenity), and son of Alfred Newman.

HomeAlone1

There were some interesting aspects to performing a live score along with a movie.  The sound levels were a little strange because the movie had to be fairly loud so the live music wouldn’t cover it.  It was a little disconcerting at first, because Home Alone opens with the commotion of “15 people in this house.”

In addition to reading off the score, the conductor was watching a small screen that was synced to the big screen.  It used tracking lines of various colors and flashing circles to cue entrances and tempos.  Pretty fascinating; I’m sure it’s a little more complicated than a normal orchestral performance, but Mr. Newman probably has some practice with this kind of thing.  Everything seemed to go really smoothly.

The score to Home Alone is one of my favorites by John Williams, my favorite composer.  I think it tends to get overlooked in his oeuvre.  But it complements the emotion of the movie so well, managing to be creepy, jolly, frantic, determined, and many other things at various times.  Especially in the strings, the use of glissando and pizzicato really contribute to the strange idea of “ominous Christmas music” that I love.

A note from John WilliamsMy favorite musical part of the movie occurs when Kevin leaves the church where he was talking with Marley to go home and prep for the burglars.  The children’s choir in the church has been singing “Carol of the Bells,” and as Kevin starts running it transitions into a more rock feel, with drums and a driving bass line, while still building on the carol’s theme (“Setting the Trap” in the soundtrack).  It’s just such a clever, well-done transition; I appreciate it every time I watch the movie, and it was even better live.

The orchestral parts of the score are also interspersed with classic Christmas songs (White Christmas, Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree)  in the movie–the orchestra did not play these live, obviously, but they really add to the tone of the movie also.

After the movie, the orchestra and chorus gave us a little encore with a Christmas song.  The performance was a great way to get in the Christmas spirit, and there were lots of families there that seemed to enjoy it, too.