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Gladiator, Pompeii and the Coming of the Film Concert

June 6, 2014

Gladiator Concert

What is it that makes Gladiator the king of the ancient epics? Why would the makers of Pompeii so shamelessly rip off what they thought were the best bits from Ridley Scott’s film and manage to produce a truly awful movie? And why would thousands of people who have probably seen Gladiator many times pack into London’s Royal Albert Hall for a screening of the movie to the accompaniment of a huge live orchestra and choir?

I’ll answer the first question as a fan who has seen any number of big-screen epics in my time – Spartacus, Ben Hur, and The Fall of the Roman Empire among them. The story – substantially inaccurate, incidentally, but hey, it’s a movie – of blood and guts, love, envy, courage, hope, faith and revenge. A great cast, with Richard Harris, Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Derek Jacobi and the late great Oliver Reed in his last role leading the line. A taut screenplay by David Franzoni in which Crowe’s lines repeatedly deliver knock-out blows. Superb costumes, sets and cinematography subtly enhanced with CGI. And then Hans Zimmer’s music – as much a star of the show as the spectacle itself.

Unsurprising then that the makers of Pompeii would take a warrior enslaved, turn him into a gladiator and send him into a city about to be destroyed by the mother of all volcanoes. Like Crowe’s Maximus, Milo, the hero of Pompeii, becomes best mates with a soulful black gladiator. He too worships his ancestors and has a daughter of the aristocracy swooning over him. We are treated to the familiar gory scenes in Pompeii’s version of the Colosseum, where the baddie, Keifer Sutherland’s venal property developer of a senator endeavours to fix the demise of the plucky Brit and marry his girlfriend against her will, only to be stymied when Vesuvius intervenes.

At this point the unfortunate Pompeians are treated to every spectacular volcanic phenomenon known to nature. First an earthquake, which actually struck Pompeii 17 years before the volcano put out the lights. Then the fiery boulders that come crashing down on the city, trashing whatever the earthquake spared, followed by a pyroclastic flow that incinerated everything in its path. No matter that in reality Pompeii got the ash, and Herculaneum the pyroclastic flow, which was why the remains of the two towns are substantially different from each other.

When I watched Pompeii with my daughter, who is also a Gladiator fan, we kept whispering “Gladiator” to each other each time we identified a rip-off from Ridley Scott’s masterpiece. The characterisation was unsubtle, the script a poor attempt to emulate Franzoni’s ringing epic-speak. By the end of the movie you felt grateful to the volcano for putting an end to such an assortment of ill-drawn characters and tedious plot lines.

The inspiration for Pompeii, however, endures, but that doesn’t fully explain why the multitudes would come to the Albert Hall to see a live orchestra performing music that most of the audience, judging by their apparent prosperity, could easily hear in the comfort of their settees in front of their home cinemas.

Clearly the answer lies in the power of live music, and powerful it certainly was. As a cinematic experience it left something to be desired, because the music often overpowered the dialogue. But the producers had thoughtfully provided subtitles for those who didn’t know the lines by heart. And actually this brought an extra dimension into the movie, because there are bits of script that are virtually inaudible in the cinema version – such as Maximus’s imprecations to his ancestors, and the catcalls that greet Commodus on his grand procession through the streets of Rome upon his return as newly-proclaimed emperor. Watching the movie with several thousand others also brought out unexpected moments of humour, like Commodus’s petulant reaction to senatorial mockery: “I am very vexed!”

For me the interesting thing about the concert was that it’s part of a new genre of live music – concert-versions of movies. Silent movies usually had a live piano accompaniment, and occasionally a small orchestra, but when the talkies came along, recorded music went hand in hand with speech. There have always been talented composers writing for film, and soundtracks have always sold well in the record shops. But they have usually been seen as “not serious”, except when “serious” composers – such as Ralph Vaughan Williams with Scott of the Antarctic – deigned to produce music for the movies.

These days, however, film music has acquired a niche in classical radio playlists on stations such as the UK’s Classic FM. Even the BBC’s Radio Three regularly features film music. The days when classical purists would turn up their noses at film composers as derivative and unchallenging artisans while torturing their ears with Schoenberg, Boulez and Glass are over. And it’s not surprising that composers who feel constrained by the limitations of the four-minute song turn to film as a way of getting their work in front of a mass audience.

All though opera and ballet are still cherished vehicles for live music, you wonder whether the great operatic composers like Handel, Mozart, Verdi and Puccini would have bothered writing for a bunch of high-maintenance divas in rickety opera houses if they had the opportunity to reach millions by scoring Dr Zhivago, Lawrence of Arabia or Pirates of the Caribbean. You bet they wouldn’t, especially when they could earn a hundred times the money on offer from their grasping theatre impresarios. So you could say that the true heirs of the great operatic composers are the likes of Maurice Jarre, Vangelis, John Williams and Hans Zimmer, rather than the subsidised “pure classical” composers who toil away producing works that will never reach a fraction of the audiences who buy other forms of music.

This is not to deny the undoubted talents of composers like Maxwell Davis, Harrison Birtwhistle and the recently-departed John Tavener. But the old composers lived on their wits and their ability to attract patrons and theatre-goers. More than we think, it was a matter of “art for art’s sake, money for God’s sake” in the immortal words of the 10CC song. Most of the great composers wrote works for the market that existed at the time. Their genius lay in pushing out the boundaries of their art without losing their audiences and patrons. There was no such thing as a government-funded Arts Council in those days, just capricious bishops and rapacious theatre managers.

Gladiator is not the only movie to be given the concert treatment. Bernstein’s West Side Story will soon be performed at the Albert Hall, and last year the same venue hosted a concert of Danny Elfman’s music for the films of Tim Burton. Apart from serving as a highly profitable franchise for the promoters, these performances play an important role in introducing people to orchestral concerts. These productions are the latest in a long tradition of live performances of music that can’t be described as hard core classical, from Gilbert and Sullivan through the Boston Pops to the Three Tenors.

Conductor/impresarios such as Andre Rieu do very nicely out of televised concerts that are relatively easy on the ear. Classic FM’s brand promise is “Smooth Classics”, and the station does what it says on the tin. No composer more dissonant than Stravinsky ever reaches the sensitive ears of its genteel listeners. And the music of Zimmer, Elfman and Williams, while often strident and dramatic, does little to disturb the day of the taxi drivers, exam revisers, school run mums and pensioners who tune in for their regular dose of the Classic FM Hall of Fame, whatever that’s supposed to be.

Another interesting facet of Hans Zimmer’s success has been his willingness to collaborate with other composers, Gladiator, for example features a strong contribution from Lisa Gerrard, who sang the main theme at the Albert Hall. Through his company in the US he encourages composers to work with him, something that Bach and Beethoven would never have thought of doing. Not quite the equivalent of the workshops of the great renaissance painters and sculptors, because Zimmer encourages diversity, whereas the renaissance workshops basically employed apprentices to serve the needs of the master. But the net result is the same – a widening of experience, credibility and skills of people – in Zimmer’s case, composers, arrangers, musicians and technicians – who work with him.

I admit to having an ulterior motive in these musings beyond a strong interest in film and music – my daughter Nicky Royston is in the early stages of a career as a film composer. As with any creative career, she’s on a tough road. But collaboration with established composers is one route that offers a way forward in a fiercely competitive arena, and she already has some experience of this through working with the Spanish composer, Marco Werba.

Needless to say, I’m rooting for her, and I look forward to the day she invites me to the Albert Hall to listen to her stuff!

From → Film, Music, Social, Theatre, UK

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