Wu-Tang Clan founder RZA has watched The 36th Chamber of Shaolin more than 300 times. He first saw it on TV as a kid, and then in seedy theaters in Times Square. Wu-Tang’s debut album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), nods to the classic film, which many, RZA included, say is the greatest martial arts film of all time.
Now, four decades after the release of the film, RZA will be at the Paramount Theatre, on Tuesday, April 17, live-scoring the movie with cuts from Wu-Tang’s catalogue, something he’s done eight times since 2016, when Alamo Drafthouse founder Tim League got RZA together with Celestial Pictures, which controls the rights to the film.
"They knew that I did this video deejaying that I did at the Hollywood Bowl," RZA says. "They thought it would be cool if I came down and did it at a couple of their theaters."
The film follows a student through 35 chambers of training with monks at a Shaolin temple before starting a 36th chamber to teach lay people martial arts. RZA says he first started live-scoring the film by himself, with keyboards, drum machines and DJ decks, but after a few performances, he realized it was too much for one man, “because you’re dealing with all these separate cues, and you need eight arms to do it.”
He brought on his friends Tom Shannon and DJ Skane to help out.
“Tom Shannon, to me, is the originator of veejaying,” RZA says. “He’s the first guy I’d ever see...he took a couple of VCRs together, daisy-chained them and overdubbed animation over breakbeats. I told him, ‘Look, technology has finally caught up with your creativity, and I’m actually one of the guys who’s out here leading the way. Won’t you come and join me?’”
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RZA says his live score refreshes the film — for example, early in the film when a general jumps down and attacks another character, who says, ‘You have skills worthy of a general. If you want to fight, fight with me, one to one, man to man,” a line that was sampled on Method Man’s song “Meth vs. Chef.”
“When that happens in the score, I actually put on ‘Bring the Pain,’ and they start fighting to ‘Bring the Pain,’ RZA says. “It’s cool as shit, yo. Like they’re fucking fighting to ‘Bring the Pain.’ It matches really cool.”
Each time RZA watches the film, he says he always finds something new. “I guess the best way I could say it is like, 'Fire always rules,’” he says. “So at any time, I could look at this film again and get rekindled at any time. My life can get rekindled. And the coolest thing that happened to me, about a year and a half ago, we played in L.A. at the Egyptian Theatre to about 1,500 people. It was sold out. But in the audience that day was my ten-year-old son who had never seen this film before, and he got a chance to witness it, and he loved it as well.”
The 36th Chamber is not just a great martial arts film, but it’s a great example of cinematic storytelling with sweeping themes, RZA says.
“We follow a character who, through struggle and oppression, has to find a way to better himself and go back,” he says. “If you look at it, it’s not just taking revenge, because he’s now Buddhist. It’s one thing — not to be a spoiler of the movie, right — but If you watch the movie in deep detail, you’ll notice that when he comes back to fight everybody, he rarely kills anybody."
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He adds: "It’s a pretty unique turn of how they try to keep the Buddhist philosophy, and then there’s a line that guy says: ‘You a Buddhist monk? Monks don’t kill.’ It implies that even Buddha punishes evil. There’s always something in there you can pull out.”
RZA, who says he hasn't been in Denver for a long time, wants the local crowd to come out and have some fun with him and enjoy The 36th Chamber in a new way and have a good time.
"The moral is the 36th chamber actually didn’t exist in Shaolin," he says. "The 36th chamber became the world outside of Shaolin. So we’re living the 36 chambers. Come on and enjoy yourself."
RZA: Live from the 36th Chamber, 8 p.m. Tuesday, April 17, Paramount Theatre, 1621 Glenarm Place, 303-623-0106, $36-$49.