Review: Chicago Philharmonic Revives the Roar of Marvel’s Black Panther for Juneteenth

The Chicago Theatre started out as a movie palace that could hold more than 3000 viewers for the silent films that were all the rage. It was normal for a silent movie to have a pianist or Wurlitzer organist adding suspense and exclamation to the flickering images of sheiks riding across the desert and damsels being menaced. The last movie I saw at the Chicago Theatre was Day of the Animals (1977), and the music was a schlocky soundtrack as Leslie Nielsen is overcome by dangerous ozone and tries to take on a grizzly while Linda Day George screams. It took me back to 1977 knowing that I was going to see a movie in the Chicago Theatre. This time it was Marvel Studio’s Black Panther with the soundtrack played in concert by the Chicago Philharmonic. Executive director Terell Johnson pointed out how meaningful it is to show a film about a Black superhero on the eve of Juneteenth and how representation matters in the arts.

The soundtrack to Black Panther won an Oscar for composer Ludwig Göransson who had worked with director Ryan Coogler on previous films and with musician/actor Donald Glover aka Childish Gambino. The music is astonishing and sounds really good in Dolby, so I was curious how they were going to pull this off with a live orchestra—no mixing or enhancing. There were some aces up the sleeves of the Philharmonic that changed the game, in the form of Senegalese Talking Drum Master Massamba Diop and local musician Steve Kujala on African wood flutes. Kujala is world renowned for playing with jazz fusion legend Chick Corea. This was going to be on fire and I was not disappointed.

Steve Kujala, Flute. Photo © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2022.

Under the baton of conductor Emil de Cou, the Chicago Philharmonic made the movie feel more thrilling than I remember when I saw it at the AMC complex on Western. It was an emotional moment when the late Chadwick Boseman appeared on screen overlooking mythical Wakanda. The audience applauded and the swell of music behind that scene brought my heart to my throat. Black Panther is the first Marvel film with a major Black Marvel character playing the lead. Yes, there is Storm from X-Men but Black Panther follows the hero’s journey literally into another realm between life and death.

Massamba Diop is central to the soundtrack and was instrumental in creating an authentic African sound. Diop is an ebullient show unto himself. He is a master of the Tama drum and oh the sound! Diop brought out different tones on that one drum that punctuated the fight scenes and car chases. The drum was and is a means of communication and rhythm for Africans and their descendants. Steve Kujala’s flute sounds have a deeper and raspier intonation than the traditional European flute. Kujala’s playing was more subtle but integral to the sound of nature and the otherworldly landscape of Wakanda.

Massamba Diop. Photo courtesy of Diop’s Facebook Page.

The Chicago Philharmonic gifted the audience on that night. There were a lot of Black school-aged children in the audience and I could see my younger self in them. These were young Black kids who were seeing where the music comes from and how it syncs up with the action. Music is art that is math and logic covered in beauty. We were seeing real people who looked like us on the movie screen, in Massamba Diop, and in the Philharmonic on stage. It was a great way to celebrate Juneteenth—remembrance of freedom hard won. The Chicago Philharmonic will be doing more of these wonderful performances including Ghostbusters in October at the Auditorium Theatre and Black composer William Grant Still’s Afro-American Symphony at the Harris Theater. These are professionals who have played in orchestras all over the world and they call Chicago home. For more information check out their website at www.chicagophilharmonic.org Also, for the history of the Chicago Theatre, visit their website. Get your vaccines, wear a mask and come on out; the arts are thriving in Chicago!

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Kathy D. Hey

Kathy D. Hey writes creative non-fiction essays. A lifelong Chicagoan, she is enjoying life with her husband, daughter and three dogs in the wilds of Edgewater. When she isn’t at her computer, she is in her garden growing vegetables and herbs for kitchen witchery.