The Conversation

By Bruce Isaacs

On the weekend, Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s (SSO) played the score to Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 classic The Godfather during a screening of the film at the Sydney Opera House.

The Godfather is the film critic Pauline Kael described as the greatest ever produced in America. And that famous score of Nino Rota’s now seems as elemental to the film as Brando’s performance or Gordon’s Willis’s signature low-lit cinematography.

The orchestral accompaniment is dominated by brass and woodwind driven pieces: the haunting Rota major theme that engulfs the opening; the soaring brass that takes us from the intimacy of the Corleone family home to the big sound stages of Hollywood.

On one level it is a fairly obvious synthesis of two modes of performance: a film screening and a musical rendition of a film score. It’s a trip to the movies, preceded by a drink at Opera Bar. Viewed in this way, the experience was dominated by the monumentalism of the single film and its massive cultural legacy.

That may be why I noticed a section of the audience surreptitiously slip away at the commencement of the end credits. They missed the orchestra’s rousing grand finale which was accompanied by a moving series of stills from the film production.

Beyond this, what’s the big deal about this recent amalgamation of classic cinema and orchestral live performance?

I suspect cinema’s convergence with various kinds of live performance, such as popular screenings of performances by the Bolshoi Ballet or the New York Metropolitan Opera, has its roots in the desire to make cinema more than simply a screened event. Bringing a live component to the filmic performance brings the performance “to life”. It animates the film images in a way that a recorded soundtrack simply cannot.

In a very real sense, the prerecorded images we see are now made present to us. They receive a surge of new life through the soundtrack. The images themselves are of course past, having been recorded sometime in the early 1970s and screened millions of times since in theatre spaces all over the world.

But the sounds that once accompanied those images are now vitally in the present, in the shared present of the audience gathered in the Opera House. Phrased differently, with some help from philosopher Stanley Cavell, these renewed images of The Godfather are no longer merely past vestiges of a great film classic, they are now profoundly present to the audience.

This kind of philosophising about film experience might sound hopelessly abstract and even a little silly, but I’ve always been sympathetic to Cavell’s position. In my own experience with cinema, I’m always searching for the most profound and immediate form of encounter.

To that end, the SSO’s live accompaniment to The Godfather is something quite precious, and I suspect Cavell might have seen it in a similar way.

The image opens on black, a dominant motif. Prior to the appearance of Bonasera, emerging out of the darkness of the space with the words, “I believe in America. America has made my fortune…“, the film is first animated by the sound of a trumpet.

In the live performance that sound is miraculously no longer fixed to the image via the soundtrack but instead emerges out of the theatrical space in which the audience is seated. The sound is thus made present to the ears of the audience, and in that moment of initial emergence is a very special kind of cinematic encounter.

For film purists, there are compromises borne of the conflicting imperatives of visual and aural performance. For one, the light bleeding from the orchestral space onto the screen is a diminution of the whole. In his raucous history of the New Hollywood cinema of the early 1970s, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Peter Biskind describes an early screening of the film for Robert Evans, a major Paramount executive.

Apparently (so the story goes), the film opened on black, with Bonasera’s monologue, and Evans said: “What’s on the screen. Do I have my shades on?”

Black infuses the complex pictorial space of The Godfather, and Gordon Willis’s cinematography with blacks and sepia tones is now legendary. A lot of this visual subtlety was unfortunately lost in the SSO performance. The classic performances are there — Pacino’s telling of a “true story” involving Luca Brasi in the opening sequence is surely a highlight of his illustrious career — the music is glorious in live accompaniment, but the cinematic space contained within the frame is significantly diminished.

Yet this is a small detraction from what is ultimately a performance hybrid, and as such, a very welcome experiment with what cinema — as image and sound — has to offer.

The Sydney Symphony Orchestra played the soundtrack to The Godfather at the Sydney Opera House. Details