With Louis Silver’s music for The Jazz Singer in 1927, talkies ushered in a new age of recorded sound; what audiences heard when they watched a film took a bold step into completing the grand illusion of cinema. Yet even without recorded sound, the silent film era flourished with hand-crafted scores, always played live and in-house, that helped give the voiceless actors even more emotion than their faces could convey — and even helped tell the story when the talent left the screen.
Though film soundtracks have evolved into grand epic scores that can require dozens of musicians, it’s still fun to see a single musician give his take on an old classic with live accompaniment. Over the past two years local wunderkind Paul Buscarello has done live scores for such classics as The Phantom Carriage, House of Usher and Hands of Orlock with the Denver Film Society, Stanley Film Festival and Mile High Horror Film Festival; you can catch his latest work at a 35mm screening of G.W. Pabst’s 1929 silent hit Pandora’s Box at 4 p.m. Saturday, February 21, at the Alamo Drafthouse in Littleton.
“Even when its goal usually is to go unnoticed, music — or lack thereof — can define a moment in a film. If you doubt that, play 'Yakety Sax' over your favorite horror movie,” Buscarello says. “For me, a great score uncovers something in a film rather than creates something for itself. It reveals a dance within the images, something the actors or director or whoever may not have intended.”
We asked Buscarello to tell us more about the delicate relationship that music has with its celluloid muse and to divulge his favorite soundtracks. The top five:
5) The Conversation — David Shire
“I'm just going to talk about the main theme here, because on the whole this score isn't particularly amazing,” says Buscarello. “Shire did some cool stuff with manipulating his solo piano score to mimic the film's obsession with distorted, quiet, mysterious sounds, but largely it stays out of the way of the film's incomparable sound design. However, there is something to the main theme that helps us learn something about the world of the film, particularly Harry Caul. It might just be me, but the first few notes bear a weird resemblance to Scott Joplin's ubiquitous 'The Entertainer.' Plus, its waltz format and the way the melody rolls over the tritone and other blue notes, it almost sounds like a strangled, loopy carnival song. More than just a jazzy sound you would expect to accompany a detective story, this theme reveals the farcical nature of the film, where truth and lies meet and where games of cat and mouse go in circles.”
4) Brick — Nathan Johnson
“Here's a great example of how limitations can shape a soundtrack. Apparently the music was recorded on a laptop microphone. Here instruments like a mallet rattling inside the tubular keys of a metallophone replace strings and horns. In this way, the soundtrack prevents the film from being only an homage to film noir,” Buscarello continues. “While the plot, character lingo and look of the film call back to classic noir films, the cheap-yet-elegant soundtrack wouldn't be out of place with a spaghetti Western complementing the film's sometimes dusty, sometimes foggy, sometimes all-too-clear image of a southern California suburb.”
3) Lift to the Scaffold — Miles Davis
“Davis allegedly improvised this score live while watching the film, in a way doing what silent film accompanists do: react to the film, channel its mood, make its characters dance, and stay alert for sudden shifts and moments. Davis's score soaks the film in mood and incredible melancholy — loneliness and confusion where most composers would opt for tension, given the film's thriller plot. With Moreau's performances and Malle's patient camera, it's lovely,” says Buscarello.
2) There Will Be Blood — Jonny Greenwood
“I'm sure you were expecting this one,” exclaims Buscarello. ”So goddamn good. Scenes like the oil derrick explosion, with its arrhythmic percussion, stand out, but it's themes like 'Open Spaces' which give the film its depth. Greenwood gives the bass a rising perfect fifth, a tone of hope and purity against a score and a film with such twisted darkness. Greenwood's score encompasses not only the drama of the characters, but the last twinkles of mystery and beauty of the American landscape, an animal that people like Plainview can conquer and devour. Also, that guy is in that one band, The Radioheads — cool, right?”
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1) Rebel Without a Cause — Leonard Rosenman
“As a student of Arnold Schoenberg, Rosenman came from a tradition that bucked notions of tonality and melody. While these ideas aren't the motor of his Rebel score, the dissonant textures and frantic tension of moments like the knife fight outside the planetarium or Plato's stand-off with the police work perfectly with the film's terrific depth. A more traditional score couldn't expand with the film past the conventions of a Technicolor melodrama and into something greater: a transgressive work that looks deep into the heart of adolescence and an era on the brink of massive social change. The beauty of the score is that it doesn't undermine or denigrate the family melodrama at all, keeping all the juiciness of a Douglas Sirk film while offering something even deeper and more intense and delightfully atonal.”