It’s not often I would recommend seeing a movie while watching the entirety of it through a handrail – but that’s what I did last week – and it was fantastic. The venue was the Royal Albert Hall and the movie was La La Land shown as part of its ongoing Films In concert series. Being known for high standards in cinema viewing I have a reputation for being fussy about seating positions – but for La La Land at the Royal Albert Hall with my family, I was in less-than-optimal seats – being at the highest tier, at the sides, and with a “restricted view”, thanks to the aforementioned handrail blocking my view of the screen. And yet, it was still nothing less than magical.
The reason being, of course, is that the movie was accompanied by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, playing the score, live, along with the movie. While we were already excited to be there, we were even more so when we realised as we took our seats that the conductor was actually Justin Hurwitz, the film’s original composer – something we hadn’t noted even when we’d booked. As I pointed out, this was a good thing, as he’d be likely to know the music quite well.
And so it proved.
Though I’ve seen La La Land several times, hearing its music played live, conducted by its composer, was joyous and powerful, and took me on an emotional journey all over again. I’ve waxed lyrical before (I say lyrical, YMMV) about the joys of seeing and hearing a film live in concert in previous articles, having seen the first three Star Wars films in this way, and I’ve covered the complexities of how the orchestra keeps time with the film too – but this was even more impressive, as many of the players had to match what was being shown on screen. After all, none of the characters in the original Star Wars trilogy plays music on screen. OK, I mean there’s Figrin D’an in the cantina and Max Rebo in Jabba’s palace, but you know what I mean.
As it turned out, my elevated position above the stage allowed me the bonus of being able to look down and see the pianist playing the music in time with Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian on screen – most impressive.
A few days later, it was back to Star Wars, and once again it was seeing it in a format I’ve not seen before – namely IMAX – something that would make even Yoda appear huge. The BFI IMAX in London was showing the original trilogy twice over two days, and while I only got a chance to take in one of the films – the greatest in my opinion, The Empire Strikes Back, I was taken with how much new impact it brought to a film I’ve seen countless times.
This was even though the message “This film has not been optimized for IMAX theatres” appeared on the screen before the film started. This means that the DCP has not been prepared by IMAX, which would nomically involve going through the IMAX DMR process, that remasters the image, so it looks impeccable on the extra-large IMAX screens.
This message indicates that this is a regular digital DCP that is no different to that being shown in a regular cinema. I certainly noticed that some shots were softer than most modern films that will have undergone the DMR process, which is noticeable when you’re watching it on one of the largest screens in the country. (The BFI always refers to itself as the biggest screen in the country, but technically that’s only true when showing an IMAX 70mm film image in the tall 1.43:1 aspect ratio – for digital images, others are wider and therefore bigger).
With all of that, it was still wonderful to see The Empire Strikes Back bigger than I’ve ever seen it before. The incredible stop-motion work of Phil Tippet demonstrated in the Tauntauns and the AT-AT walkers, was tremendous, as was the epic first battle between Luke and Darth Vader. The audio also impressed, showcasing the classic John Williams music, with the Imperial March making its first appearance, and even if it didn’t have the low bass impact and precision of modern movies that have been specifically tooled for the format. If Lucasfilm and IMAX get together to create an IMAX-optimized version, I’d definitely make the effort to go see them once again.
So, whether it’s La La Land with an orchestra or Star Wars on an IMAX screen, new formats can breathe fresh life into classics you know well, giving you a great excuse to see them as they should be – on the big screen.