A long time ago (circa 1977), in a galaxy far, far awaythat would be CaliforniaGeorge Lucas created a text crawl so iconic that newspaper writers would forever be powerless to resist appropriating it in Star Wars-related articles.
Does any pop culture phenomenon require less explanation? Light sabers and the Force are entrenched in the lingua franca of the American middle classand beyond. My spellchecker recognizes “Jedi,” which almost 400,000 English and Welsh people designated as their religion in a 2001 census.
The six Star Wars films lie at the heart of a multimedia empire consisting of toys and novels and everything in between. John Williams’ score, perhaps the most broadly recognizable American orchestral music of all time, has been one of the few under-exploited aspects of the franchiseuntil now. The nationally touring production Star Wars: In Concert chronologically digests the stories of all six films with a blend of montage and Williams’ music. Conductor Dirk Brossé brings the classical bona fides, while host Anthony DanielsC-3PO in the flesh!is pure Star Wars fan service. That’s good, because it was decidedly not a symphony crowd at Raleigh’s RBC Center on Sunday afternoon. It was mostly families, career nerds and me, a nerd in journalistic disguise.
In the teeming concourses of the RBC Center, vendors did a brisk business in junk food and $15 light-saber key chains that glowed an eldritch jade. Kids were decked out in film-themed, bathroom-unfriendly costumes. Inside the arena, on an elevated stage lit in mysterious blues was a full orchestra and choir. Behind them, a large screen played scenes from the films. Along with the music and images, futuristically twisty light fixtures, banks of roving colored spots and some veritable Pink Floyd laserssynergistically greenconspired to flood the senses.
It was weird to hear C-3PO’s voice issue from a silver-haired, twinkly-eyed smoothie in a sharp black suit and silk tie. Daniels, a mime by training, hasn’t had much mainstream success outside of C-3PO, a role he’s been happy to keep alive over the years. His presentation was self-aware without bitterness or egotism. He hammed it up when appropriate, opening his jacket to reveal a gold waistcoat and miming a bit of the old Droid herky-jerky, but was reverent on the big plot points. He was altogether charming: spry, earnest and comfortable being this thing that people still love.
The orchestra was lively and commanding with a well-balanced sound, though some harps and basses inevitably drowned in the stormy crescendos. The overwhelming fame of Williams’ score might make the snob in you cry a little tear for the Babbitts, Coplands and Adamses of America, but it’s pretty remarkable stuff. The interwoven themes add so much depth and characterization to the fiction. One pines for the days before pop-music placement ousted the orchestral score from soundtrack preeminence.
Young Anakin’s music is appropriately moody, while the Droids theme is jazzy and silly, with sections of ghostly pizzicato. Padmé’s music unfolds the somber, plangent chords of doomed loves everywhere. The “turning to the dark side” music is all fated grandeur, and Darth Vader’s theme is oppressively martial. The famous Millennium Falcon escape is complemented by speedy passages and near misses, while Princess Leia’s theme is sinuous and sentimental. Luke Skywalker’s music blends a variation on the title theme with saucy cantina jazz, while Yoda’s is slow and wise, with flashes of sprightly mischief.
As film music, it’s unquestionably great. But what about as plain old music? I was born into the American middle class in 1979, so I’m not the one to say. For people my age and older, the music can’t be cloven from its nostalgic images. It’s hard to chalk up my generation’s enduring devotion to some stilted puppet animations to anything more than our love for (and bombardment by) them as kids.
The computer-generated wonders of the newer filmsthe prequelsdon’t have the same nostalgic magic as the old-school models and effects of the originals. Princess Leia drew a chorus of lascivious whoos from the audience, while confirmed hottie Natalie Portman, as Padmé, only got golf applause. To be 30 or older and hear the Star Wars title theme is to abandon critical thinking and be swept away in sense memories: Maybe you’re suddenly wearing pajamas with feet on them, and you have some popcorn, and there’s an impression of a great, sheltering arm around your shoulder…
For all the excitement, I kept catching whiffs of sadness. The man beside me wore socks with sandals and Silly Bandz on his wrist. I thought he was with a kid, but he left alone at intermission and never returned. It seemed weird that he was there alone, wearing Silly Bandz he wasn’t holding for a child. I wondered why he left. At one point, he’d raised both arms rapturously, like a Christian at a tent revival. I’d been writing in my notebook, and I worried that I had somehow ruined it for him with my writingby doing something to the experience, rather than just giving in to it.
There is something depressing in this collective longing to find a new corner in the dream, something unsettling about grown men wearing Star Wars T-shirts tucked into high-waisted jeans and futuristic kilts. Not because it’s uncoolbut because it seems to express some unquenchable need that no media can fill. But it was also a place where people were generally, genuinely happyat least until the second act, when kids started to sugar- and stimulus-crash. A place where, for better and worse, adults and kids sat side by side, their faces tilted up with identical rapt expressions.
At intermission, I watched a dad with scary-looking motorcycle-gang tattoos tenderly drape his arm around his young son. Together they admired a Darth Vader T-shirt that must’ve cost a bundle here. Then the dad held it up to the boy’s small chest. It looked to be just his size. This was the flip side of the franchise fetish, the light at the end of the obsession: a passion for an escapist fantasy temporarily uniting generations that are often separated by an impassable media-culture divide.