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Chicago Symphony Orchestra Accompanies "It's a Wonderful Life"

A live score for a film such as "It's a Wonderful Life" is like 3D for your ears, providing an invaluable, lively audible texture that can be lost during any standard film projection. As Friday's Chicago premiere of the newly restored score reminded me, Frank Capra's 1946 film is told not only by the sheer force of all-American values, but framed as a story shared by cosmic beings in the universe. Watching the film with such clean string and vocal accompaniment (as performed by members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chicago Symphony Chorus) and even muted trumpets for "Buffalo Gals" is probably the closest we can get to hearing George Bailey's story like the angels would.

I have seen films scored live before (at this past Ebertfest), but those were silent movies, in which musicians like the Alloy Orchestra or Renee Baker and her orchestra offered an emotional interpretation. With a film like Capra's, its wide-ranging, definitive emotions in dialogue and atmosphere are to be savored, especially as composer Dimitri Tiomkin's score is a text of its own. One that, with this special occasion, has recently been restored by composer-conductor Justin Freer (as part of his expanding CineConcerts program), who took Tiomkin's original score from the Paramount archives and brought it back to the movie, now giving Capra's film an extra 40 minutes of music.

For a motion picture in which music fills the characters' lives, the CSO recreates a great deal of what can be heard in Capra's film. One highlight involves the scene where Jimmy Stewart's George saunters into Mary's house, and she puts on their relationship motif "Buffalo Gals" to set a romantic mood. The CSO highlights the moment's many layers, with trumpets carrying the melody of the tune as the strings of Tiomkin's score play under it, creating a powerful effect when Mary and George have one of their very first serious connections as inevitable husband and wife.

With the live score bringing the 70-year-old film's visuals to life, the emotional stakes of good ol' George and his altruism are heightened. In the earlier days of his life, when the Bedford Falls band plays the Charleston at the party in the school gymnasium, the orchestra places you in the gym and right next to his romantic pursual, which sends him to Mary (Donna Reed). Or, later in the film, when George has seemingly lost everything except a life insurance policy that could help save the town and his family, the score's emotional clarity provides an essential millisecond in which your heart tells you that, this time, he might just throw himself off that bridge.

The live score experience hits an appropriate climax during the third act of the movie, in which George looks into the alternate reality of his non-existence. Aside from its disorienting feeling visually, the score makes the nightmare feel more immediate than a saturated soundtrack's background music ever could. It does, of course, lead to a pay-off of unity and warmth in the Bailey household, but in this case the beatific singers declaring "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" are there in the room with you. For an American pastoral of a film with so many moments that seek to grab you spiritually, giving this movie its prestige in the process, the live score experience expresses these feelings with a brightness like no other.

It's worth noting too, that while Tiomkin's score didn't get one of the film's five Oscar nominations, the sound recording did. A special treat of this presentation is that the current sound editing here doesn't cut out its design, allowing the sounds of the film to work along naturally with the music. There are even moments when the orchestra appropriately mixes its own volume, playing underneath certain action or dialogue, as if we were watching the score being recorded all over again, but in the alternate universe of the way Tiomkin meant it to be. Aside from the thrill of watching a live symphony, it creates an exciting journey to find just the right aesthetic balance, and it comes together quite nicely.

"It's a Wonderful Life" will be presented again today by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at 3:00pm and at the same time tomorrow, Sunday, December 11. To order your tickets, click here.  

Nick Allen

Nick Allen is the Senior Editor at and a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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