Monday, 4 September 2017

Emotional capital… London Symphony (2017) with the Covent Garden Sinfonia, Barbican

Most of us have a relationship with London, whether we are merely visitors, were born here or migrated here, as I did, some 33 years ago. I first lived in Croydon, spending most evenings commuting into the West or East Ends, just 15 minutes, trains-willing, from East Croydon to Victoria… real London was calling me. All the same, it was good to see this huge and much derided, borough represented early on in this stunning new film and Kingston upon Thames too – where I also worked - as well as the more obvious icons of this diverse city.

In all, over 300 locations were used in London Symphony including every bridge from the Thames Barrier to Hampton Court miles up the river that both divides and brings together the metropolis; stiches on the wound that still brings life to the city.

City of glass and mills: New and Old
This was the UK premier of the live score performance of Alex Barrett’s silent cinematic tribute to his home town and whilst it contains his vision it also connected with the audience in a most individual way; the significance of place varying from watcher to watcher. That was where I walked after a break up, there was where I almost got that job and that pub… what can I say; I was barred! For such a big city, London has so much intimacy when you stop, look and listen.

The broad narrative of Alex’s film was decided long ago as was the music that would accompany it from James McWilliam, who’s score, originally designed to come first, actually came afterwards… It’s a tribute to the understanding of both men that their partnership worked either way: a rare thing to find such well-defined creative objectives and strategies agreed with such surety from the get-go.

A discoteque
The film has a loose narrative split into four parts that roughly cover dawn to night focusing specifically on: the new and the old – a city in constant flux; the peace of open spaces; worship in the multi-culture from religion to business, money and education and then finally, the journey home or the nightlife as the West End explodes with a montage of theatre signs.

It is unflinching, showing us some truths that hit all the harder as they emerge from this context: poverty, a man scrabling for food in bins, a food bank being organised behind the scenes... At one moment a pool of half-dried vomit by a doorway... London is ugly sometimes and everyday, most places somewhere.

James’ score follows the beats of the intricate cutting but also runs counter – as it has to, this is London after all… helping to highlight the images in startling ways. This is a film you could watch over and again and still find new meanings and identifications. Both the images and the music achieve the balance between mood and specified meaning and not always at the same time leaving you propelled in constant readiness for the next revelation: a three-eyed pigeon view of the North and the South (banks).

Ben Palmer, conductor of the Covent Garden Sinfonia, praised the score for its intricacies and subtlety; passages that carved an elastic thread around the visual story only to land with precision on a specific moment when “real time” punctuated the flow… Watch out for one especially intrepid fox…

A river does run through it...
The music was poignant and modern, appropriately enough. Alex spoke about the ongoing validity of the silent film form as a means of analytical expression after all, as he said, just because you can break dance doesn’t mean to say you should close down the ballet. He’s a student of what has come before, notably Walter Ruttmann and his Berlin, Symphony of a Great City (1928) but Alex was also intent on creating something new and not just an old "style". By the same token James’ music doesn’t drench the images of London in respectful chord progressions, he’s creating his own counter-points and juxtapositions. The two work together to throw up constant surprises.

Peaceful brook, manic tube... strange hat
Which is why London Symphony works so disarmingly well: it is a new view of the city but also one millions will recognise. As was said in the questions and answer session, this is what future generations will study when they want to find out what London was actually like in the 2010s. Nothing stands still and, even now, our perceptions of London’s limitless multiculturalism are already changed by the results of Brexit and what seemed to many in the staunchly “remain” capital like a protest vote against "change".

Brexit? Ha! London can take it as it has so many things in the past and will continue to do so in the future. For, if there was one overwhelming feeling you took from this film it was the ability of the city to survive and flourish with hard-wired diversity strengthening resilience along with London’s insistence on growing old disgracefully… Our capital is burning out but constant renewal means that it will never fade away.

One of those bridges
The film had received huge support from the silent-film community and been successfully crowd-funded with hundreds of contributions. Whilst this was the first time I had ever seen my name on a cinema screen, it also featured the acting debuts of a number of more generous funders including Girl in a Bar (with drink) and Woman on the Tube (with attitude) both of whom gave convincing performances of Gish-ian subtlety and Pickford verve!

I’m given to understand that both now have agents.

Pandora's jars...
Alex, James and their collaborators have re-written the rule book on modern documentary by showing that music and images can still convey more about the essence of place than standard spoken word narratives. You can’t just simply sum up a city of London’s depth and breadth with words… and perhaps the only way to truly capture it is through the fleeting glance, wordless reflections and thematic hints. Let the audience make of it what they will… After all, on a day-to-day basis that’s about as good as it gets: you don’t need to understand London to live here… to love it.

The Symphony plays on throughout the Kingdom and I would strongly urge you not to miss it in cinema if you can. Please do not be The Person who doesn't see it...  Book Now! Full details are on the film's website.

It's ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ from me!

All images plundered from the film's trailer, with apologies.

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