Symphonic Sharks and Stormtroopers: Hollywood Bowl’s Movie Nights Pull Curtain Back on Film Scores

John Williams' 40th anniversary Bowl appearance is being preceded by "Jaws" and "Star Wars" live-score screenings, while Henry Mancini will be celebrated as "The Pink Panther" unspools as part of the Bowl's jazz series.

Los Angeles Philharmonic Association - John
Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

In the perennial cataloguing of the best single-screen movie theaters in Los Angeles — the Chinese, the Dome, the Egyptian, et al. — a nearly century-old venue has been showing up as a new kid on the block. That would be the Hollywood Bowl, which only this decade began screening entire films with full-length orchestra accompaniment. This summer, the schedule is so packed that classic film buffs might not even mind that the New Beverly is closed, when they’ve got the Bowl as the city’s most value-added revival house.

This Friday and Saturday, there’ll be chowing down not just among the perennially snack-happy Bowl audiences but on stage, or above it, as “Jaws” screens for two nights accompanied by the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra performing John Williams’ game-changing score. Then, in August, the first two “Star Wars” movies have their live-score Bowl premieres with the L.A. Phil, also as part of a tribute to the 40th anniversary of Williams’ association with the venue. David Newman, of that movie-music Newman family, conducts Williams’ scores for both engagements, and then shares the baton with moviedom’s favorite maestro himself (pictured above, with a light saber-wielding audience) at a clips-filled Labor Day weekend tribute.

Even if he’s the 500-pound shark in the room, it’s not all-Williams, all the time at the 2018 movie nights. “The Pink Panther” will screen at the Bowl for the first time in August, celebrating an association with the late Henry Mancini that goes back even farther than the one with Williams — and marking the first time a full-length movie has been shown as part of the Bowl’s jazz series. Meanwhile, the annual “Sound of Music” sing-along will make the drought-stricken hills come alive in early autumn.

Monica Mancini feels sure her father would be thrilled by the recent phenomenon of live scores, “because when he was a kid, the very first movie that he saw, he literally thought the orchestra was behind the screen. He couldn’t put that together. So I think that that would be kind of a beautiful sort of full circle moment for him, because with the orchestra right there under the screen, it’s almost the way he as a kid in his head envisioned it.”

Variety spoke with some of the principals behind the live-to-film nights about what to expect.

“Jaws” (July 20 and July 21)
They’re not gonna need a bigger Bowl; the approximately 80-piece Hollywood Bowl Orchestra will be just enough to bring off Williams’ 1975 score. It’s not one of the most score-heavy films in Williams’ oeuvre, which makes it all the more dramatic when strings also rise out of the briny. “I think ‘Jaws’ has 40 or 50 minutes of music,” says Newman, “compared to something of his like, say, ‘Return of the Jedi,’ where I think there’s only eight minutes that doesn’t have music in it.”

Minimalism becomes it; the score features the most recognizable two notes in music history. Newman says Williams did not choose to focus on a pair of notesat a time randomly. “The two-note motif kind of feels like the shark’s tail going back and forth as it swims, which is the way it moves… Then there’s an augmented interval, which is the middle interval in the scale — the evil medieval interval that you would never supposed to use if you were a trained musician of any taste. And of all instruments to play, it’s the tuba.” Making the tuba the most sinister of all instruments, however fleetingly, may count as one of Williams’ most undersung accomplishments.

“Star Wars: A New Hope” (Aug. 7 and Aug. 10)
“Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back” (Aug. 9 and Aug. 11)
“I think the ‘Star Wars’ films are something that everyone has wanted to do since the full-length film with orchestra thing started to blossom so much. Those have been at the top of everyone’s list of films that make sense,” says Brian Grohl, the Bowl’s program manager and pops manager. Hollywood will mark only the second time any of them have been done in full in concert. Says Newman, “We premiered the whole thing with the New York Philharmonic last year in September and October, doing episodes 4, 5. 6 and 7. At the Bowl we’re doing the first two from the ‘70s, and I suspect we’ll do the other two that we did at the Philharmonic (“Return of the Jedi” and “The Force Awakens”) next year — that would be my guess.”

Newman appreciates the tradition in which the “Star Wars” music was created, paying homage to something long ago and far away… the ‘30s. “’Star Wars’ is a look back to swashbuckler stuff as well as Flash Gordon kind of things. When (Erich Wolfgang) Korngold came to Hollywood in the ‘30s, he wrote these big swashbuckling scores, like ‘Captain Blood’ and then ‘Robin Hood,’ which he won an Academy Award for. And a lot of ‘Star Wars’ is that, where the music just hardly ever stops. Actually, in the first ‘Star Wars’ there isn’t nearly as much music as in ‘Empire’ or ‘Return’; I think there may be 20 or 30 minutes less. But the music became so famous after the first movie that I think they just kind of said, more!”

“The Pink Panther” (Aug. 8)
Ginny Mancini recalls that her husband “conducted the L.A. Philharmonic 29 times at the Bowl and was scheduled to do the 30th gig when he became ill (before passing away in 1994) and wasn’t able to do it, so he has a long reputation at the Hollywood Bowl. So he’ll be smiling.” Adds Monica, “When I was a kid, his whole gig was every other summer at the Hollywood Bowl, and so I kind of grew up with the Hollywood Bowl as my backyard. We miss those days. But,” she confesses, “I don’t miss the traffic.”

Monica Mancini will be braving the traffic whether she likes it or not because she’s scheduled to take the stage as part of the program, singing a live rendition of “Meglio Stasera” (English translation: “It Had Better Be Tonight”), the song that a sultry Fran Jeffries, “in her very tight ski pants,” breaks the fourth wall to sing to the camera in the 1963 comedy.

This will be the second live engagement for “Pink Panther,” following a premiere at Florida’s Arts Boca Festival in March 2017. Producer Robert Thompson, president of Schirmer Theatrical, worked with the Mancini family at length on locating the printed score, because commissioning a takedown from the soundtrack itself would have been prohibitively difficult and expensive. Unsure it even existed, they finally found the score, complete with his notes, in the UCLA music library; Mancini had donated it without telling the family. They weren’t so lucky when it came to finding a separate music stem in MGM’s library of recordings, but hired a Culver City company called Posthaste Digital to wipe the music and create a dialogue-and-effect-only soundtrack for orchestras to accompany.

“It’s not symphony orchestra,” says Thompson. “When Hank scored, he basically had his big band, so you had five saxes, four trumpets, four trombones and a rhythm section, plus strings, and then there were added elements like guitar and accordion… I have grown up since I was what 5 or 6 listening to a mono soundtrack of that film, and a lot of it was even more buried in the film mix. Hearing it now as it would have been heard in the studio gave me goose bumps — it was like IMAX for your ears.”

John Williams: Maestro of the Movies (Aug. 31, and Sept. 1 and Sept. 2)
The Bowl may have mostly transitioned from clips shows to full films, but they’ll make an exception and revert to the old format when it comes to paying tribute, as every summer, to Williams, who will conduct part of his program and leave the rest to Newman. For anyone who misses the two “Star Wars” nights earlier, there’s a good chance the theme will be part of this program.

“As soon as he hits the downbeat for the ‘Star Wars’ main theme,” says Grohl, “the light sabers come out and people start waving them. John said that it doesn’t happen at Tanglewood (in Massachusetts), it’s just at the Bowl, and he’s always so amused to see that happening… For people who love film music, I think it’s so heartening to see a film composer walk out on stage and get the reaction that the Rolling Stones would get.”

Says Newman, “This renaissance of showing films with live music would have been unthinkable without John Williams’ stint at the Boston Pops that started in the early ‘80s, and all that stuff that was on PBS and televised. The climate for film music in the ‘70s and ‘80s was vastly different in the classical music world than it is now. It had this historically bad rap in the upper echelons of orchestras and people who wrote about orchestral music. And without John’s patience and persistence, what’s happening now would never have happened.”

“He’s 86, and he’s tireless in in the amount of work that he’s doing,” says Grohl. “We in the past haven’t had quite as many John-scored films in one summer, so this is part of the recognition of that milestone, for him to have first been at the Bowl in 1978 and to have conducted almost all of the summers since. The Bowl and Tanglewood seem to be the two places that he goes to every summer, and so we’re just grateful that we’re one of those two places.”

Sing-A-Long “Sound of Music” (Sept. 22)
Full live scores have only been happening at the Bowl since 2011, when Newman conducted “West Side Story” live to picture. But regular full-length screenings sans orchestra actually date back to 2001, when “The Sound of Music” had its first sing-along showing.

“In the U.S., I’m told that the Bowl and the Castro Theatre in San Francisco are the only two places that do it every year,” says Grohl. “There are two years that we haven’t done it. One was in 2006 when, as the annual Broadway musical at the Bowl that we do, ‘The Sound of Music’ was the show that we did that year, so we didn’t do the sing-along of the film. There was another year in the early 2000s when we tried ‘Wizard of Oz,’ and that didn’t work quite as well, just because there aren’t as many songs in it.”

The costume parade and contest are a big part of the night, and coming up with something original becomes more vexing for the regulars each year. In other words, if you’re thinking at this late date of coming as, like, a female deer, you’re going to have to try harder.