Since composing the score for the 2006 film Little Miss Sunshine, the Denver-based DeVotchka has seen its music used in various films, television shows and commercials. Frontman Nick Urata has spent more than a decade composing for the screen. And when the San Francisco Film Festival commissioned the band to score a silent film two years ago, the bandmembers jumped at the chance.
Urata says he did a deep dive into all the best silent films that have survived. The only thing was that he was having a problem with were most of the films’ intertitles — the title cards that show dialogue between in between scenes — which he thought would kill the momentum of any sort of musical score. Plus, he couldn’t find a film that he thought an audience would focus on for more than twenty minutes.
But then Urata came across Man With a Movie Camera, Dziga Vertov’s 1929 silent film that magnificently documents the horrors and ecstasy of a day in the life of a city in the Soviet Union. Urata eventually discovered that Vertov was not a fan of intertitles, either.
“He and a bunch of other sort of documentary pioneers were really rebelling against this whole idea of having it be scripted and narrated and theatrical,” Urata says. “They thought it would be a waste of such an amazing medium.”
DeVotchKa debuted its live score of Man With a Movie Camera two years ago, and has since been hoping to reprise it. As part of the Denver Film Festival, the band will perform it live again with the film on Sunday, November 3, at the Phipps IMAX Theater at Denver Museum of Nature & Science.
Urata says that he and bandmates Tom Hagerman, Jeanie Schroder and Shawn King approached scoring Man With a Movie Camera as they did Little Miss Sunshine — composing it together as a quartet.
“We sort of distilled down our instincts on general scoring and instrumental music — orchestral music — and distilled it down to four pieces,” Urata says. "That’s kind of what we’re doing. We’re trying to integrate the instruments we love, like accordion and tuba, with a little bit of electronic love to bring it in to the modern age. There’s a lot of percussion. It’s basically about keeping the momentum with what’s on the screen.”
We sort of distilled down our instincts on general scoring and instrumental music — orchestral music — and distilled [it] down to four pieces
The film has four times as many cuts as most movies from the silent-film era, and that fast pace is gold for a soundtrack composer, Urata says.
“As far as translating to a modern audience, it’s still timeless,” Urata says of the documentary. “The really incredible thing about it is although the film is black and white and the cars and the fashion are dated, [Vertov] was a master at capturing humanity. You start to lose a sense of time, and you feel like this is your friends and your family and yourself up there on the screen. It’s really remarkable. You feel like this could be happening today.”
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DeVotchKa’s score runs the entire length of the seventy-minute film with room for improvisation, which at times gives the score a spontaneous feel. Urata adds that no two performances of the score will ever be exactly the same.
It's a busy weekend for DeVotchKa; the band will also be at the Stanley Hotel on Friday, November 1, and Saturday, November 2, for what Urata describes as a sort of interactive experience, with performers doing pop-up performances, multiple music and aerial shows, and magicians all over the hotel.
DeVotchKa plays the score to Man With a Movie Camera at 8:30 p.m. Sunday, November 3, at the Phipps IMAX Theater at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. Tickets are $40 to $45 and available at the Denver Film website.
Hear DeVotchKa and more favorites from Westword writers on our Westword Staff Picks playlist.