Review: There Will Be Blood with The London Contemporary Orchestra

London hasn’t always been my home. There was a time when a visit to the capital was a treat, when no time was wasted. Alas, I’m now just another automaton with my earphones surgically attached to my head, closing my eyes and thinking of England when a crotch is thrust face-wards on the tube. Last week though, I braved the wind, the cold, and the crotches and headed out to see Paul Thomas Anderson’s Oscar winning There Will Be Blood performed with the London Contemporary Orchestra.

It was a Monday, so naturally I wasn’t in the greatest of spirits. Nonetheless, with the rigours of the day behind me, I braced myself for a wind-swept walk across the Golden Jubilee Bridge heading towards Southbank Centre. I took to my seat, warm and flat half pint in hand and waited. Darkness quickly descended and, despite the best efforts of the visitor in front of me, aggressively attempting to get herself, her ticket, her beer, the orchestra and the screen in a single Instagram shot, pin-drop silence followed.   

The first chord hit, and I was overcome by a giddiness that I hadn’t felt in a while. It wasn’t just the film – I’d seen it many times before – and I know the music well so I didn’t expect there’d be many surprises there either. I’m not one of the more die-hard Radiohead fans and whilst the prospect of seeing Jonny Greenwood from 50 yards away was exciting for the other half of The Tung, for me, without my glasses, it literally could have been anyone. So why was my reaction so strong?

It's a human compulsion to open things up and see how they work, and experiencing a film with a live orchestra is like examining a watch with an exposed mechanism. When we can physically see the mechanisms that drive the score – the players and their instruments - the music is emphasised as not only intrinsic to the film, but as the force which keeps it ticking. Those famous first 15 or so minutes, totally without dialogue, see the exposition of Henry Plainview not only through plot, but also through its accompanying score. Those opening glissando strings, a-tonal and slick as oil, are characterising forces. By the time Day Lewis delivered his first line my hands were drenched in sweat.

Unsurprisingly, there were times that the orchestra actually drew more focus than the picture. The solo cellist was hypnotic, mesmerizing the audience in high-stakes moments. During a scene in which Plainview marks his route from the Sunday ranch to the sea, the string section oscillates in and out of time with itself, the erratic stabs of the bows as disquieting to see as they are to hear. For the most part though, it was when the sound and picture became one that effect of Paul Thomas Anderson and Jonny Greenwood’s working relationship, and PTA’s insistence on final cut becomes clear. It’s a formidable piece of art.

This was an entirely novel cinematic experience for me, yet there was a time when the use of live music to accompany picture was standard. Silent film showings often involved a live pianist, organist, or small orchestra. As the talkies emerged through the late 20s and early 30s, so too did the overture, used primarily as a means to replicate the experience of going to a theatre, apparently reassuring middle class audiences of the supposed properness of the activity. For nigh on 80 years now the film score has been a totally integrated aspect of film, and we too often take it for granted.

Enter Southbank Centre and the Royal Festival Hall, and a return to the Golden Age of cinema. In watching There Will Be Blood I felt treated to a performance, and one that required a promise from a patient crowd. A promise to engage, to relinquish control, to escape. Movies are released ever more frequently, with more of a focus on quantity than quality, and streaming services mean we can press pause or fast forward and break the spell. Why not avoid Ben Affleck as Batman, and ignore the corporate rehashing’s of classics – here’s looking at you The Magnificent Seven – and spend a little extra on a lot more.

Catch these integrated performances at Royal Festival Hall over the next few months:

Brief Encounter
London Philharmonic Orchestra
14th Feb 2017

Under the Skin
London Sinfonietta
4th April 2017

Hitchcock’s Psycho
London Philharmonic Orchestra
23rd June 2017

Hitchcock’s The Lodger
24th June 2017
David Briggs, organ

Hitchcock’s Vertigo
BBC Concert Orchestra
25th June 2017