It’s a movie that starts with a bang. A blast of horns creating a rush of energy that is there to announce the adventures and drama to come. At the Hollywood Bowl for four performances this past week, this blast was also the announcement for the start of a unique kind of concert. It was a movie screening with a twist, because the score to Star Wars: A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back was being performed live by the LA Phil. With conductor and film music composer David Newman at the helm, the LA Phil took the audience through the magic of the film from start to finish (with an intermission…because that’s a lot of music to play).


(Note that the images are from the Tuesday August 7th performance of Star Wars: A New Hope due to licensing, but you’ll get the idea. All images by Dustin Downing)

I was in attendance at The Empire Strikes Back performance and screening on Thursday night, sitting there alongside an excited and enthusiastic audience, blown away by how the live orchestra created a kind of new life for a score I have listened to a thousand times. I’ve probably listened to the score more times than I’ve seen the movie. This performance was the coming together of something special because the audience is allowed to engage with the incredibly iconic composition in a multitude of ways.

When I spoke with the maestro of the evening, David Newman, in preparation for the performance, he mentioned that there is something kind of rock and roll about this kind of concert. And there was. When The Imperial March began, the first time it is heard in the movie, the crowd literally lit up – with lightsabers. They began swinging them up and down to the beat of the march, almost like people rocking the sign of horns at a metal concert. It was electric.

And there’s a reason for that. Think about this: this piece music, The Imperial March, the famous imposing sign of impending danger and doom, that moment when everyone lit their light sabers and joined in, this is the music’s first moment EVER. Before that it didn’t exist in the Star Wars Universe. It didn’t exist in the popular lexicon. It’s this theme, it’s that moment that exemplifies why this score, like the movie itself, is a fully realized expression of what Star Wars is. The score is confident, expressive and romantic, it knows what it is and it’s not shy, pulling from the first film and lifting it into a stratosphere we couldn’t have even known existed. Experiencing it live, a full orchestra creating the score alongside thousands of people made this a simultaneously a different, familiar and emotional occurrence.

There were times when I would be watching the orchestra with one eye on the screen above them, curious to witness how David conducted and kept everything in sync. It was an exercise in precision and passion. Then there were micro-moments, where I’d experience the music and the movie in a multitude of ways all at once. For example: the asteroid field scene. This is a perfect four minutes of music and I was overwhelmed by all the ways I could engage with it. I would look at the orchestra, excited to see how they performed it. I would look to the movie screen, you know, just to make sure Han, Leia and Chewy make it out ok again (spoiler alert: they sort of do?). And then, weirdly, I just closed my eyes. I let the live performance just wash over of me. I felt each individual element coming together, all the instruments melding into a perfect expression of why the score for this movie is so enduring. There truly was something to the liveness of the performance that felt different. It felt epic and warm, like a hug you didn’t know you needed.

And then, like the world’s most unprofessional music writer, there were times that I simply got lost in the movie, because it truly is one of the best. Luke having to figure out his shit with Yoda and it turns out he never does and this is why Luke Skywalker is my favorite character because he is such a mess. Han and Leia trying to make it out of the Empire’s pursuit while also admitting to themselves that their love runs so deep. Darth Vader on the hunt for his son and killing underlings left and right. That really delicious ham sandwich that is the Emperor. The wonderful Lando and his Cloud City that is also straight up the dream interior design of a really groovy house. I couldn’t help but get caught up in it along with everyone else. Like the pull of a planet, it just would draw me in.

But I think that was the magic of this performance. It allowed for you to choose your own adventure.

Learn more about the LA Phil.