Without even really trying, I met my first Star Wars newbie last night. We sat next to each other at our local symphony orchestra’s The Music of Star Wars performance. It made for an interesting May the Fourth.
But, first, a brief history lesson:
Star Wars is so omnipresent it has its own unofficial holiday. Thanks to the online mobilization of fans and an influential Big Bang Theory episode, May the 4th is now May the Fourth or, more simply, Star Wars Day. It’s actually an old idea, possibly first suggested as a pun on “May the Force” by a British MP back in 1979. However, Star Wars Day truly became a thing in 2013. Fans plans their weddings around it now.
When Mashable’s Chris Taylor landed the gig to write what would eventually become the 2014 book How Star Wars Conquered the Universe, his first idea was to use Change.org to organize a San Francisco screening of A New Hope on May the Fourth. Easier said than done. In a city of 750,000, he only found 30 genuine Star Wars newbies, and of those 30 the majority had already absorbed much of the Star Wars mythos through cultural osmosis. You don’t need to have actually watched Star Wars to know the names Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, Yoda, Han Solo, Princess Leia, and Obi-Wan.
I’ve never tried anything as orchestrated as that. Star Wars newbies are like black Russians to me – I’m told they exist, but I don’t expect to ever meet one. I certainly didn’t expect to sit next to one at an actual May the Fourth event, but I’ve also never bought an ultra-expensive full season pass to my local symphony orchestra. Rather than let the pass go to waste, some classical music lovers will turn out for a pops concert dedicated to films they’ve never even seen.
Like George, for example. (Not his real name, but picked for its obvious Star Wars connection). A sixtysomethinger with thinning gray hair and old school obligation to wear a suit jacket to such an event, George sat as quiet and still as a statue when the evening’s host playfully asked, “Who here has seen Star Wars?” How odd for him to offer no response.
When the program started and the orchestra launched straight into the main title theme, the crowd erupted into applause. I was with them. I personally got goosebumps hearing the John Williams score live for the first time. George, however, merely waited for the piece to be over and then clapped politely. I mean, seriously, who “claps politely” for this?
(Granted, that’s a video of actual John Williams conducting the score many years ago and not a video of what we actually saw, but my symphony has really strict cell phone rules. For the most part, they did a pretty good Williams imitation.)
Whenever the evening’s host returned to preface each new number with a here’s-what-movie-this-is-from-and-why-it’s-so-great explanation, George’s eyes showed no flashes of recognition. The host described things like a young Anakin Skywalker’s dance and eventual loss to the devil (as intro for “Phantom Menace: Anakin’s Theme” and “Imperial March”) or a lightsaber battle between people with names like Darth Maul and Qui-Gon Jinn (as intro for “Duel of the Fates”).
She might as well have been speaking Swahili as far as George seemed to know, but at least it was a recognizable language with words. When we all – with the host’s encouragement – let out our best simultaneous Chewbacca impression to honor the late Peter Mayhew, George looked like someone who had just turned the TV to Animal Planet on accident.
The music, however, at least stirred more of a positive response in him. Except for one brief stretch halfway through where I swear he dozed off for a minute, George applauded every performance and participated in the standing ovation at the end just like the rest of us.
With the show over and the audience sent on our merry way with “Throne Room & End Title” still bouncing around in our heads, I just had to know: how much did George know about Star Wars and when did he know it? (Apologies for the Nixonian phrasing, but this struck me as conspiracy to be solved.)
Thankfully, George indulged my curiosity: he knew Star Wars was a film franchise about “good versus evil” and “outer space magic” and he had heard of Yoda and Darth Vader before. As someone who lived through the release of Lucas’ original trilogy, it was impossible not to at least hear about Star Wars at the time. It’s similarly impossible to escape the new films today and the way they overwhelm pop culture. “Space fantasies about mystical monks with sci-fi swords and daddy issues” aren’t his thing, though. Even so, he had at least seen the “Luke, I am your father” scene, though he couldn’t recall where.
“I wish it didn’t take popular movies to bring people out to appreciate orchestral music,” he offered wistfully. Still, it felt good seeing the orchestra playing to a sold-out crowd, many of whom came dressed as their favorite characters. Geroge described Williams’ motifs as “overly repetitive” (how dare you, sir, even if you might have a point) but also found the compositions quite stirring, reserving considerable praise for the fine work of the brass section. Of all the pieces played in the program, “Imperial March” was the one he’d already heard the most despite never watching a single Star Wars movie. “Wasn’t it in some commercial?” he vaguely wondered.
Cue up the commercial, YouTube:
As we parted, I jokingly offered, “May the Fourth be with you,” assuming he wouldn’t get it. “Always” was his surprising reply. “I don’t even know how I know that quote,” he cracked while laughing.
It would seem as if Chris Taylor’s experiment played out to similar results in my case: everyone kind of knows Star Wars even if they’ve never seen the films. Also, John Williams sure loves his motifs.
To close out, here’s Williams conducting “Rey’s Theme,” the most recognizable/best piece of music he’s composed for the new movies:
That’s my May the Fourth story this year. What’s yours? Or are you one of those people who think geek culture is already all-consuming enough as is and giving a franchise an entire day to itself is just too damn much? If so, do you at least concede that John Williams’ “Princess Leia’s Theme” is the greatest love theme in the history of all music ever written? What do you mean that’s a ridiculously high bar? Answer me in the comments.