Real Musicians in Fiction Films
It's a special pleasure to have friend, super-cinephile, and editorial comrade Adrian Martin visit me in Buffalo for a few days this week. I'm enjoying every minute of the non-stop movie talk. Adrian and I will head to Northwestern University in Chicago later in the week for a panel discussion on "film criticism and its relationship to academia." — G.
Having been an amateur musician all my adult life, I’m always intrigued when films — specifically fiction films — feature real musicians.
I’m especially interested by films that take the documentary presence of real musicians — and their music-making abilities — and put it into interaction with the fiction. When done imaginatively this documentary charge can accomplish things — can be used to signify — in certain special, resonant ways that wouldn’t quite be possible otherwise. Let me give you a couple of examples to indicate what I mean.
(1) In 1980, Paul Simon wrote and starred in a little-known film called One-Trick Pony, directed by Robert M. Young (Nothing But a Man, The Plot Against Harry). Simon plays a down-on-his-luck musician, once successful during the 1960s counterculture era, but now reduced to touring with his band in a beat-up van, playing small gigs or opening for newer, younger acts. His band, on both the record and in the film, contains several gifted 70s jazz/rock musicians like Tony Levin, Steve Gadd, and Eric Gale.
As the film opens, Simon and his band perform the title song at the Agora Ballroom in Cleveland. The mise en scène studiously captures both the vocal and instrumental labors of the group (there's a significance to this dual attention), with close views of the kick drum and guitar fretboards: this is a group with musical talent. Also, when the scene begins, we are mid-set, and every band member is in full concentration, dripping with sweat: this is a serious, industrious group.
They finish the tune to a lukewarm reception and file off stage into the dressing room. The audience begins to chant, and the headliner, the band it really came to see — the B-52’s — bounds on stage and opens the set immediately with the ebullient "Rock Lobster". Simon briefly watches from the wings, then turns away. As we will learn, he and his band feel only contempt and resentment for all the “new stuff” of that musical moment — punk, new wave, and disco — all of which they throw together into the same commercial, novelty-seeking category.
But here's the revelation of the scene: While we hear Simon's song performed in its entirety, the B-52’s only get a minute or so in the film. The camera focuses on no instrument players, we see brief medium shots of only the singers, Fred Schneider in his eye-catching and "feminine" bright yellow pants and purple T-shirt (Simon has on good old-fashioned "masculine" American blue jeans), and the two women in beehive do’s. But there’s something, thanks to the unique powers of cinema, that all of Simon’s intentionality as writer and performer can’t erase: the irrepressible, explosive, punkish energy of the B-52’s in performance, evident instantaneously from the visible, documentary evidence captured automatically by the camera.
(2) Straub/Huillet’s The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (1968) is surely one of the richest, most thought-provoking fiction-documentary hybrids in the history of cinema. The film documents by means of documents — notated scores, letters, engravings, drawings, maps — not all of them “authentic” (e.g. Anna’s diary, which forms the core of the voiceover narration). The documentary quality is enhanced by the way in which the filmmakers respect the wholeness and integrity of the musical performances by recording and filming them in their entirety, without cuts, a practice that defies industry norms in both cinema and music.
The result of these sustained, single-take musical performances by actual musicians — prime among them the recently deceased Dutch harpsichordist Gustav Leonhardt, who plays Bach — is the way in which our concentration becomes sharpened and focused on the smallest details of music-making: its labors, its gestures, its accidents.
Straub commented on this in a 1968 interview with Filmkritik magazine:
They say when people saw Le déjeuner de bébé or L’arroseur arrosé by Lumière, they didn’t cry out: Oh! bébé is moving, or l’arroseur is moving. They said, the leaves are moving in the trees. The bébé who moved they had already seen in the magic lantern. What was new for them was precisely that the leaves were moving. The “leaves” in the Bach film are the fingers and hands of the musicians and the unbelievable gestures of Leonhardt…
I also see echoes of this respect accorded the work of music-making in the films of Aki Kaurismäki. Recall the bands that perform in The Man Without a Past or The Match Factory Girl, for instance. Their performances are not recorded in single, unbroken takes but he uses real musicians and records them live, so their fingerings, movements and gestures match the music that issues from the screen. Why is this important? Not because we desire some kind of literalism, but because it recognizes the activity of musical performance as something that is important, worthy of attention in itself. In other words, at these moments, music doesn’t exist to serve the images or the narrative, but becomes something truly autonomous.
(3) There is a 5-minute musical sequence in Howard Hawks’ Ball of Fire (1942) that gives us a striking contrast between ‘theatrical’ and ‘non-theatrical’ modes of cinema.
The Gene Krupa Orchestra, featuring Krupa on drums, performs its signature tune “Drum Boogie” with Barbara Stanwyck singing. (Her voice is dubbed by Martha Tilton, who comes remarkably close to the actual singer in the band at the time, Anita O’Day.) The orchestra is on a nightclub stage, and we see the performance from afar, with a large audience. But after the song concludes, Stanwyck calls Krupa up from behind his drum kit way up on top of the bandstand, and they both come down into the audience. She pulls up a table; Stanwyck and Krupa sit down; she gives quick instructions to the audience, now crowded around the table, on what vocal parts they should sing. She counts off, and, as the camera watches from a mere foot away, Krupa plays the tune again, this time on a matchbox with two matchsticks. He spins intricate syncopated rhythms, all the while, miraculously, not letting the matches catch fire until the very end, when he climaxes the performance with a little burst of flame.
By staging the same tune in two arrangements — one theatrical and the other non- or anti-theatrical — we find ourselves witnessing a lesson in the powers of intimacy of the cinema, bolstered by the documentary event of Krupa's presence and performance experienced at impossibly close quarters.
Any examples of the use of real musicians in fiction films that you find interesting? I'd love to hear them.
Some recent reads:
-- Amos Vogel has died at 92.
-- Cinema Scope's 50th issue has a special feature called "50 Filmmakers Under 50," with a capsule essay on each by a different film critic. Also in the issue: an interview with J. Hoberman; and Jonathan Rosenbaum's "Global Discoveries on DVD" column. Related: Hoberman on Luis Buñuel in The Nation.
-- "How To Rip DVD Clips": Jason Mittell at the Chronicle of Higher Education.
-- Ignatiy Vishnevetsky on Hong Sang-soo's use of space.
-- Adrian's column at Filmkrant: "Across the Great Divide".
-- Jonathan Rosenbaum has a post on Straub/Huillet's Écrits.
-- Catherine Grant rounds up four issues of the journal Image [&] Narrative.
-- Zach Campbell: "Workers, Potters," part one; part two; and part three.
-- Srikanth Srinivasan on Alec Guinness' white suit, one of his "records of material objects in the cinema."
-- Three recent pieces on Carmelo Bene: Nick Pinkerton at Moving Image Source; Celluloid Liberation Front at MUBI; and Ara H. Merjian at Artforum.
-- Recent discoveries: Nicholas Rombes' The Happiness Engine; and Fredrik Gustafsson's Fredrik on Film.