There’s a nice moment at the beginning of The Artist as the camera pulls back and you realise you’re watching one of the characters own films. George Valentin is a silent movie star and you’re seeing the premiere of his latest movie to an audience of eager fans in a Hollywood cinema while an orchestra plays live music to accompany his film. Below this screening of the The Artist in the Royal Albert Hall was the London Symphony Orchestra reflecting the on-screen orchestra in performing that very score.
The Artist opened to great acclaim in 2011, winning 5 Oscars and focusing on Hollywood’s transition from silent film to ‘talkies’ by charting the fall of one silent film legend and the rise of a young new talent. It has much in common with two of the finest films ever made – Singing in the Rain which deals with the same process, and Sunset Boulevard, looking at what happened to those who were cast aside by the new wave of talking pictures. But I found it interesting because its simplicity seemed so fresh and radical in a world of CGI and meaningless blockbusters, yet, of course, its techniques were actually the oldest form of cinema.
And it is a very charming film, managing to be both lightly comic and very touching. Dialogue cards are used sparingly, so although you see characters talking to each other, you’re just shown things you really need to know. Everything else you surmise from the action, expression and the music which carefully guides your emotional responses. It’s a great score and even if you turn your TV up very loud, it doesn’t have quite the same effect as hearing it played live.
The Albert Hall is one of the world’s best music venues and although I’m not a concert-goer, I have seen a couple of things there and been surprised by how intimate a venue it is; there’s hardly a bad seat and even at the very back you still feel close to the musicians. I’ve written before about the loveliness of silent films with live music and seeing The Artist here is probably the pinnacle of that, especially having the film’s composer Ludovic Bource and original conductor Ernst Van Tiel performing. This is fast becoming one of my favourite ways to watch films and, for fans, the Albert Hall has scheduled West Side Story with live music in July. As The Artist has shown, traditional cinema techniques are still very effective. Perhaps regular cinemas need to up their game in the presentation of the films they show – not just through digital techniques such as HD but by creating more memorable experiences. Live music is one way to achieve this and it may help to infuse cinema-going with a greater sense of occasion.
The Artist in Concert gave 4 performances at the Royal Albert Hall.