The Matrix Live with the San Francisco Symphony
July 27, 2013
Davies Symphony Hall
Better than: Watching pretty much any movie the Wachowskis have made since.
As an inveterate, semi-professional music nerd, I'm always trying to figure out ways to entice my kids into seeing live concerts. Getting my 11-year-old son excited about checking out bands he's already into, like Motörhead and Iron Maiden, is easy. But trying to talk him into anything outside his narrow musical wheelhouse requires no small amount of carrot dangling.
Having witnessed his abject boredom firsthand at past elementary school visits to Davies Symphony Hall, I knew any classical music experience would be a tough sell. When I saw that The Matrix was going to be shown with live symphony accompaniment as part of the Film with the SFS series, I figured the movie's ample ass-kicking and dystopic vision of the future would appeal to the boy's sci-fi/gamer sensibilities.
As we filed into Davies Symphony Hall and took our seats, I saw far less folks decked out in leather finery and black trench coats than I'd expected. While we later came across a few fans who had gone all-out with pseudo-fetish gear or agent-style suits and earpieces, the only costumed attendees that stood out initially were a couple of inexplicable furries.
The symphony was already onstage and tuning up. At the designated 7:30 p.m. showtime, the lights promptly dimmed as the soundtrack's composer (and this evening's conductor) Don Davies took the podium. The opening credits filled the screen suspended above the stage to an epic swell of brass and strings along with yells and whistles of anticipation from the crowd.
I was quickly struck by two things about The Matrix as Trinity (played by actress Carrie-Annie Moss) opened up her first can of whoop-ass to wild applause. A) This movie was meant to be seen with a large and enthusiastic audience, rather than sitting in your sweats watching late-night cable; and B) the soundtrack to the flick is about as avant-garde as blockbuster movie music comes.
Dominated by eerie, violin drones punctuated with dissonant stabs of blaring brass and clattering metallic percussion, the film's intense score harkened back to the experimental soundtrack of another stark vision of the apocalypse, Beneath the Planet of the Apes. The backing music turned even more hectic during the harrowing scene where Keanu Reeves' Neo is questioned by Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), with dueling pianists escalating the cacophony of the swirling, atonal crescendo that echoed the orchestral freakout the Beatles used to bridge sections of "A Day in the Life."
The intensity of the soundtrack definitely heightened the excitement of the film -- it honestly made me feel like I was seeing the movie for the first time again, regardless of at least a dozen viewings -- but the brief respites of silence during quieter scenes offered a bit of relief for both the performers and audience alike. Davis conducted the orchestra through his demanding music with assistance from a monitor that superimposed a countdown clock with flashing, metronomic pulses over the film to help keep time and track of the complicated musical cues.
The musicians onstage certainly seemed to enjoy themselves, smiling and laughing as they delivered a performance so loud that at certain points (such as when Laurence Fishburne's Morpheus explains to Neo how humans are used as batteries to power the computers enslaving mankind) the orchestra threatened to drown out the dialog.
But overall, the film and soundtrack performance synched perfectly. What could have been tricky segues between some of the movie's iconic electronica-fueled action scenes -- when Morpheus and Neo first spar in a training program's virtual dojo, and Neo and Trinity's heavily armed rescue of the captured Morpheus -- could not have been more seamless.
I couldn't help but hear Rage Against the Machine tearing into "Wake Up" in my head when Neo flew up to the screen to close the movie, but instead Davis and the symphony treated the audience to a final rendition of the soundtrack's main themes as the end credits rolled. The audience responded with a well-deserved standing ovation and several curtain calls for the conductor and two featured choirboys, who sported trench coats and shades.
Critic's notebook: When Fishburne first spoke in his rumbling baritone drawl, my son joked "He sounded like Bane before Bane!" While he enjoyed the symphony's performance, it seemed the mind-bending visuals of the movie left a far bigger impression on his young mind. And for anyone questioning my parenting skills, there were a number of even younger kids at Davies watching what was likely their first R-rated movie.
By the way: The San Francisco Symphony has more film-oriented programming on the horizon with soundtrack maestro John Williams conducting a concert in early September and several Hitchcock films getting the SFS treatment in October.