By David LaGaccia
In live performances, a musician, a dancer, a singer, an actor will spend weeks in rehearsals, hitting every mark, rehearsing to perfection; but each performance is necessarily filled with unexpected moments, sometimes errors, never to be replicated in just the same way twice.
In spite of what they are called, silent films of yore were rarely silent. It was standard for live musicians to play in a theater providing a musical arrangement for a film, emotional cues for an audience to react to, and even entertainment in its own right for those who wanted to see pianists, violinists, or sometimes a small orchestra perform. A screeching violin can warn us that our favorite actress is in danger; a tapping drum can mimic the hoof beats of a trotting horse, and a sliding horn can tell us when to laugh when Buster Keaton braves death again.
On Sunday, May 13, the Nitehawk Cinema at 136 Metropolitan Avenue carries on this tradition, screening the F. W. Murnau’s 1927 film Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, featuring live, the band Morricone Youth who score the film.
Nitehawk, which opened about a year ago, has made this a monthly event, playing live scores for such films as Murnau’s Nosferatu, Buster Keaton’s The General, and coming up May 25th, a midnight showing of David Lynch’s Eraserhead with Morricone Youth again providing the soundtrack.
“We take a film from the archives that is visually powerful and we see if can add something to it,” said Mason Rader, one of the director’s of Nitehawk Cinema.
Mason stated that they try to choose films from silent movies to 70’s cult favorites that are “heavy on visuals and light on plot.”
Nitehawk is a cinephile’s theater, specializing in classic movies from the silent era to contemporary cult classics to current independent films. The theater has both digital and 35mm projectors, and general admission starts for adults at $11.
The lobby has a full bar with seats and tables for visitors to hang out in, and the walls are decorated with classic movies posters, and rows of VHS tapes that range from The Nightmare Before Christmas, and concert videos of Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, to the early Diane Lane feature, Ladies and Gentle, the Fabulous Stains, to exploitation films staring the drag queen Divine, all of which will have you begging ‘Can I buy this now!’
This is the video vault, a row of upright display cases that would make most independent video stores jealous. The films are curated by Caryn Coleman, and each week, a film is highlighted on the websites blog with a review, and is screened for free “in glorious VHS,” in the lobby.
The theater has three screens that differ in size. Sunrise was shown in theater 1 and has a large screen and stadium style seating with a small table that couples two seats and holds a menu you can order from, before and during the film. Before each showing, short films relating to the feature film were shown instead of commercials. For Sunrise, classic Disney and Felix the cat cartoons played with a more obscure mix of silent shorts set to contemporary music.
Devon E. Levins’s band, Morricone Youth, is centered right in front of the screen with Devon (on electric guitar), Dan Kessler (on keyboards), John Castro (on bass), Fraser Campbell (on tenor saxophone, clarinet, and flute), Timur Yusef (on drums), and Karla Moheno as a soloist, a choice unusual even for live scoring.
Mason chose the band with its more modern and unconventional take on classic films because he described himself as “loose,” when it comes to interpretations, and he wants the music to stand out. “I want the band to compete with the film,” he said, adding, “this is art created for art.”
After introductions by Mason, the film begins. The band with small lights shining on their program notes, start in with each member looking up at the screen waiting for their cues. The Sunrise theme begins in with an eerie organ tone and transitions after the opening credits.
The music is modern and the band easily transitions from scene to scene setting the right tone even though the styles range from jazz to surf rock to the films original score. Even the theme from Alfred Hitchcock Presents makes an appearance.
“I was thinking, oh no, they didn’t go too steep up the hill,” said Mason after the show, referring to the Hitchcock piece.
“The Hitchcock part appeared in the original film,” said Devon, “It’s called the Funeral March of the Marionette by Charles Gounod. People probably laughed and wondered why we did that.”
The band, despite playing with electric instruments and a modern take on the score looked close to the original orchestration for inspiration.
“It’s a matter of respecting it,” said John Castro.
Sunrise, appearing in 1927, was one of the later films of the silent era. A tremendous technical achievement for its time, the film still impresses today with its huge German expressionist sets, and groundbreaking camera work. The film, unlike other silent films at the time, had its own film score, and was a bridge between silent film and “talkies.”
The story is simple. A woman visiting from the city tempts a man from the country to murder his wife and sell his farm so they can run off together. The film has romance, horror, and comedy and is consistently ranked by critics and the American Film Institute as one of the greatest movies ever made. Like many silent films, the movie plays like a fairy tale. It inhabits a world similar to ours of faces and action, but they favor pantomime over speech, and fantasy over realism.
In one scene the woman chooses the method of the murder—drowning—and the title card (which are used sparingly) melts away on the screen while Yusef plays a descending drum roll. Another scene shows a piglet on the run in what looks like a warped version of Coney Island, or any amusement park. After finding a knocked over bottle of wine, the piglet licks the spilled wine, and starts to trip and fall from drunkenness.
“That wine scene, sometimes that scene with the pig, it usually falls flat with me,” said Mason, “But it worked!”
“It’s hard to do comedy, because well, you have to be funny,” said Devon. “I mean whenever you see Charlie Chaplin fall, you have you to do the slide whistle.”
“She was doing nice vocalizations,” Mason said, referring to Karla’s singing, during the rain storm—the climax of the film.
“I really liked how she whistled while the woman whistled,” I said.
Devon mentions that improvisation is a big part of their act.
“We didn’t expect her to do it,” said John. “She was saying all through rehearsals how she was going to do it, and she did!”
“We were thinking we should really try to get her into this,” said Devon. “We start with three or four people and we go from there.”
Morricone Youth, its name a faithful nod to Ennio Morricone, famous for scoring The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly and many other spaghetti westerns, started as a cover band of film scores in 1999, or as Devon put it, “The band started really high energy doing 60’s go-go music, spaghetti westerns influenced music,” and eventually got into doing live scoring for films, seeing that as a “natural progression.”
“It’s what we do, and it’s what we’re into,” said Devon
In 2004, they put out a studio album of original music titled Silenzio Violento, with plans to release another album soon. The band, however has gone through several lineup changes, and in 2006 went on a brief hiatus, but, members Devon Levins and John Castro have stayed throughout.
“We met in the fourth grade, and played together since the 7th grade,” said Devon.
Devon, an avid collector of film soundtrack LPs since he was a kid, is familiar with many composers, many which may be unfamiliar to the average filmgoer, such as Francois de Roubaix, and John Barry. Since 2007 he has hosted a weekly internet radio show on East Village Radio, dedicated to the moving image, and its film composers. “ I love it,” said Devon,“ everybody has a story.”
Months of work goes into these arrangements, with many rehearsals going into them. It took them a couple of months to prepare for Sunrise, with several rehearsals needed just last week. Unlike normal bands that play song to song, Morriconne Youth, like any orchestra, plays nonstop. In the case for Sunrise, it was 95 minutes of constantly following on screen to hit their cues. “ It’s a lot of work,” said Devon, “but we’re used to it.”
“You are basically writing the movie,” said John.
“It’s uncharted territory,” said Devon. “ Like every time you see a great movie you see something different, and every time you hear a great album, you hear something new. What we try to do is put something new in, every time we play.”
The old becomes new again with each new interpretation. F.W. Murnau’s. Sunrise is playing again at the Nitehawk Cinema, Tuesday the 15 at 7:30, with general admission costing $16 for this special live event.