In late 1966, a young guitar player who had toured with the Isley Brothers and Little Richard came to England. He was managed by a former member of The Animals, who quickly recruited a bass player and drummer to form a new three-piece band. After going with Pete Townsend to hear them play, Eric Clapton said, “I thought that was it, the game was up for all of us, we may as well pack it in.”
After releasing their first album, the trio made their way back to the USA the next year to play at the first major rock festival in history. It was the beginning of the Summer of Love, and the band’s appearance, and spectacular set-closer, exploded onto the American rock-and-roll scene.
Arguments about the “best” guitarist have been around for ages and will be for ages to come, but what is inarguable is that there is a clear “before” and “after” divide in rock-and-roll music, and standing dead center in the middle of that divide is James Marshall “Jimi” Hendrix. What the Monterey Pop festival attendees learned that year was that you didn’t just attend a Jimi Hendrix concert, you were part of The Jimi Hendrix Experience, which not conicidentally was also the band’s name.
Ten years later, another young man, this one a filmmaker, released a movie. It was supposed to be the second of a two-movie contract he had with Universal Studios, and given that the first movie was nominated for six Oscars, was the most profitable movie in history, and populated most critics Top Ten lists for 1973, it should have been a shoo-in to get made. However, Universal didn’t like the ideas for the second one, and the young man, now a coveted Holleywood talent, convinced 20th Century Fox to finance and distribute the movie.
I first heard about the movie from, of all things, radio commercials.1 A lot of them. Over a period of weeks. I saw the movie in the fall of 1977, several months after it had debuted.2 In spite of how long it had been playing, I had to get to the theater an hour before the show started in order to get a decent seat. What my girlfriend and I found in the theater that night was something akin to what the festival attendees had found ten years prior — Star Wars wasn’t just a movie, it was an experience.
This was further driven home to me in 1985, when Northpark Cinema, one of only twenty theaters in the country to show Star Wars on its opening weekend, showed the entire trilogy back-to-back on the eighth anniversary of the first movie’s release. I took off work and was in line by 9a that morning for a 2p start, and soon there were multiple news crews out talking to the crowd. The theater, one of the largest in the city, was sold out, and as clichéd as it may be, there is no other word for it — the place was electric.
Before the movies started, everyone was talking, whether you knew the person next to you or not. This was movie nerd nirvana — everyone in the place already knew what they were about to see, so you were free to talk about anything in any of the movies. There were cheers as the lights came down for Star Wars (I don’t remember the moment being sullied with previews), and several more at the first sighting of most of the major players, along with a hearty round of boos at Vader’s first appearance. The place was still buzzing eight hours later, after Return of the Jedi’s credits had rolled off the screen.
It’s easily my favorite moviegoing experience, because, well, it was an experience. No other movie I’ve ever seen has generated that kind of excitement in the crowd — not Harry Potter, not the Hunger Games, certainly not anything in the MCU, not any of the Star Treks, nothing.
Which brings us, of course, to another movie you may have heard about. The Force Awakens opened last Friday, and by Monday had left all opening weekend records in its wake. We were in Cambodia when the tickets first went on sale and melted the interwebs, and we had out-of-town company in last weekend, so for the first time since the original I wasn’t in a theater’s audience for the first screening of a Star Wars movie.3
My wife and I went to see it Monday night, after $250m worth of tickets had already been sold. Usually when we see a movie on a weeknight after opening weekend, there are maybe twenty people in the theater. Monday night, the largest theater at Tinseltown was over half full, and everyone was in their seat long before even the previews started. The kid4 next to me wasn’t born when the original trilogy was released, but he was bouncing off the walls, talking excitedly to his sister and dad all the way until the lights went out.
Sometimes lightning strikes twice. Or, in this case, four times. The first cheers/clapping went up as John Williams’ iconic music began with the opening scrawl, and in that moment we were all family, all part of a community that shared a common interest, a common bond, a common enthusiasm about an uncommon movie franchise. There were more outbursts at the first sighting of a certain ship5, when the ship’s owner showed up, when a weapon missing for thirty-five years was discovered6, when a pint-sized companion made an appearance, and, of course, at the ending.
I can probably name three or four movies I’ve been to in the last thirty years where there was a single episode of clapping, but five times? Fugedaboudit. It was a rare reminder that we are alike more than we are different, that movies can still be an experience, that community can be found in unexpected places.
I’d like to think that one of the forces awakened last weekend was a movie industry who saw the power that a movie can have, but I suspect we’ll continue to get Transformers 11 and Iron Man 8 and Saw 15.
That’s OK. We’ll always have Jakku.
- I’ll wait while you try to remember the last time, or any time, you heard a movie advertised on the radio.↩
- I’ll wait while you try to remember the last movie that was still playing in theaters six months after its release.↩
- Yes, including the prequels, for reasons that are a mystery to me even now.↩
- Usually anyone less than forty, but in this case he was late teens, early twenties at the most.↩
- That’s right, we cheered an inanimate object!↩
- TWO inanimate objects!↩