Film, Music

The Godfather Live: Sydney Symphony review (Sydney Opera House)

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The Godfather, almost indisputably, stands as one of the greatest cinematic achievements of all time; (the American Film Institute ranks it right behind Citizen Kane). And now the SSO has joined the family business. Directed by Francis For Coppola in 1972 (literally a dozen directors turned it down) and based on Mario Puzo’s eponymous novel, the pair collaborated on the screenplay about what has probably become one of the most famous mob families in history, albeit a fictional one. It was a troubled production that ran way over budget, but which won a slew of Oscars and grossed nearly 50 times what it cost. Marlon Brando is the ruthless patriarch Vito Corleone who slowly but surely seduces his reluctant son Michael, formerly determined to lead a quiet, respectable life, into the business.
The score is, principally, by Nino Rota (bar essentially one song, I Have But One Heart, sung by the character Johnny Fontane, played by Al Martino; written by Johnny Farrow & Marty Symes); though the one minute and 33 seconds of Connie’s Wedding was penned by Francis Ford’s father Carmine. (Talk about family business.)
It’s more than reasonable to assert that aside from, say, Morricone, Rota is the pre-eminent Italian film composer. And he has, like Mozart, an unmistakable style. To put it in rather cruder, crasser parlance, an aural brand. He showed precocious promise as a pianist (in both a formal and improvisational sense) and composed from the age of eight. One of his works enjoyed public performance just four years later. He was a lifelong friend of Stravinsky, wrote avant garde, chamber, choral and opera music, as well as for the stage, but I’m wagering you’ll know him best for his film music. I can’t even think of Fellini, for example, without thinking of Rota; hardly surprising, when you consider he wrote for every Fellini film between ’52 and ’79. The only thing that stopped him was his rather premature passing, at just 68. Maybe he wore himself out: in 1954, for example, he completed a baker’s dozen scores. In all, he wrote over 150 scores in 46 years, from the early ’30s on. For Zeffirelli, Visconti, and a host of others.
Seeing this film again reminded me that while it would remain a very fine work of cinema in every other respect, The Godfather, sans score, would be unimaginable: the score is pivotal to its success; Rota is as vital as Vito. From the first, when Paul Godchild’s trumpet rings out in the wilderness, there’s a sense of the friendless loneliness at the top Vito Corleone must feel, as person after person comes begging favours. This singleminded simplicity, the compositional elegance, is emblematic of the restraint the director and composer show throughout. Pared back to the elemental, there are but two principal themes in the entire film; the second of which is best remembered and so intrinsic to the experience of the film and its emotional arc.
Rota’s key success is in capturing the quintessential intimacy and immediacy of Sicily in sound, which he achieves by way of traditional folk instruments, such as mandolin (played with feeling and precision by guest, Stephen Lalor), guitar (an especially warm rendition by Guiseppe Zangari) and accordion (James Crabb). At the same time, he’s written the strings so as to impart a lush romanticism. But it’s the wind section that tends to prevail: there are scenes that demand a brass band and clarinets are put to affecting use. Of course, the endurance of its success transcends its musical merits: it’s become the blueprint for mafia music.
Rota cleverly and discreetly recapitulates his central motifs, so that we see and feel parallels in the life experience of both Vito and Michael Corleone: we’ve an intense impression of the constancy of their fear; longing, for a peaceful existence they can never have; the depth of their love; their regard for tradition.
The SSO, under the baton of Justin Freer acquitted itself flawlessly, but also brought out all these qualities with potent vivacity. For my money, this is a far more workable selection than, say, Gladiator, when score and dialogue collided unhappily, doing neither proper justice.
Having said that, I’m still not sure I get the premise for doing such concerts. I say concerts, but it’s more like going to the movies, but with, perhaps, less comfortable seats. As much as it’s a credit to it, the orchestra sometimes disappears; which is to say, you can become so absorbed in the film you have to remind yourself, here and there, there’s a live orchestra playing. And the fact is, with the score at least and for many of the strings especially, there just isn’t that much work to do, because there just isn’t that much music. But what there is stands as, for mine, as one of the most moving scores ever.
It’s not really a concert, is it? But, whatever it is, it’s still an offer you can’t refuse.

[box]The Godfather Live is at the Sydney Opera House until January 31[/box]

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