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The RNS perform Charlie Chaplin’s ‘Modern Times’

A year on from watching the Royal Northern Sinfonia accompany Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, Wendy and I returned to see them repeat the trick with Chaplin’s 1936 follow-up, Modern Times.

I don’t think I’ve seen Modern Times before. The programme for this performance leaned into a narrative around automation and drew a comparison with the current debate about the future of work in the context of artificial intelligence. I found this a bit reaching: I saw the film more as a commentary on capitalism and the Great Depression.

You may already know the plot: Chaplin’s Tramp is sacked from his job at a steel mill after the pace and repetitive nature of the work produces a nervous breakdown. He meets a girl, they plan a life together, but he bounces in and out of employment and prison. It’s a mostly-silent comedy romance, scored by Chaplin.

Not knowing the film, I was disappointed by the score, which seemed to draw heavily on the jazz standard Smile. You may chuckle knowingly: as I’ve since discovered, the score came first, and combined with lyrics inspired by the film, it became Smile only two decades or so later.

Modern Times was brilliant, particularly in its physical comedy, but I thought it lacked a bit of the warm innocence of City Lights. It also had less emotional range: Modern Times didn’t have the profound melancholy and longing of City Lights: it was an altogether lighter affair, despite its political message.

But the film was only half the experience. The Royal Northern Sinfonia performed as brilliantly as always, and as with last year’s example, really brought the film to life.

We had a great time.

This post was filed under: Film, Music, , , .

I watched the RNS perform Charlie Chaplin’s ‘City Lights’

On Friday evening, Wendy and I crossed the glassy Tyne to see Stefan Geiger conducting the Royal Northern Sinfonia. The occasion was a performance of Charlie Chaplin’s score to his 1931 silent film, City Lights. The film played out on a screen above the orchestra. This was our first time back to the Sage since the pandemic, and it was delightful to be back in a venue that holds so many happy memories for us.

I’m pretty sure I’ve seen City Lights before. But, it is one of those films with such cultural relevance that perhaps I’ve just seen so many clips and references to it that I think I’ve seen it before. I’ve certainly never paid much attention to the score, and I wasn’t aware that Chaplin had ever written music. As Geiger pointed out in his opening remarks, Chaplin wrote, directed, produced, edited, starred in and scored the film, surely marking him out as a genius.

The experience of seeing the film with the score performed live obviously drew our attention to the music to a much greater degree than usual. The score is notable for its melancholy, which might not be expected in a comedy film. The Royal Northern Sinfonia performed it beautifully.

This was also, I think, my first experience of seeing a Charlie Chaplin film with an audience—and perhaps even my first time seeing a silent film with an audience. I was struck by how the laughter of the crowd—and especially the final “ahh”—became part of the soundtrack in itself, and made for a genuinely shared experience.

This was a lovely night out.

This post was filed under: Film, Music, Post-a-day 2023, , , , .

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