Monday, April 30, 2012

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.

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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.

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Any examples of the use of real musicians in fiction films that you find interesting? I'd love to hear them.

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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.


Blogger Vanwall said...

Stéphane Grappelli in the loopy "Time Flies" from 1944 - fantasy/sci-fi with Tommy Handley going back in time. Will Shakes is there, Grappelli is a troubadour; go figure.

April 30, 2012 5:32 PM  
Anonymous Paul Duane said...

Ex-Sex Pistols Cook & Jones and Clash member Paul Simonon backing (non-vocalist, but he does a reasonable job) Ray Winstone in the remarkable Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains! - a fascinating leakage of the real (the Pistols had just imploded onstage, Punk was about to become just another part of the mainstream, here are these rough-edged English blokes in a Hollywood movie) into the unreal. Even better, the non-musicians of the Stains (including Laura Dern) sound more or less like The Shaggs when they start to play....

May 01, 2012 4:35 AM  
Anonymous Yusef Sayed said...

I relish the appearance of the free jazz titans Yosuke Yamashita Trio in ECSTASY OF THE ANGELS. The group’s improvisational energy and standard-shuddering blasts are perfectly suited to the clash of energies aiming at revolution at the level of the narrative.

In a free jazz performance a head is often quickly abandoned, or nowhere to be found in the first place (think of the mysterious absence/presence of ‘The Year’, supposed organiser of the ‘Four Seasons’ in the film, and the rejection of Fall after the disastrous arms raid), yet the precarious mass is held together by shifting synergies between players and among the whole group. Often the performance will seem on the verge of collapse and exhaustion, if not for the performers’ discipline, although if this is where it needs to go... At the best of times the result will be transformative, if transitory.

What better way, then, to soundtrack a depiction of a revolutionary group, its factions, explosions, sexual abandon and bloodshed?

The trio’s appearance finally comes at the climax of the film, as we see blood fly and members of October’s group lobbing bombs; here the camera is handheld, switching from POV to a position somewhere close to the characters, along for the ride – and often extremely jerky, to the point of blurring. As potentially destructive competing political views eventually combine to orchestrate a citywide assault, and as the film mixes individual portraits, flashes of colour (the shift to colour occurs only a few times throughout the film) and a more in-the-moment documentary style, the musicians onstage in the club blaze together, all friction, fire and power.

May 01, 2012 7:55 AM  
Anonymous Dave Johnson said...

This is a great topic for a post, Girish--I love the three examples you provide and am enjoying the examples in the comments as well. I’ll add one more. In the 1980s, I was very interested in a band called The Feelies, but it was unlikely that they would ever perform near me, as I lived in a smaller southeastern U.S. city that did not have a tremendous amount of bands coming through town. I really only had one tape, The Good Earth, and almost no images, so I had very little idea about what they looked like or what kind of stage presence they had. It wasn’t until I saw Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild that I was able to see The Feelies, who a play a cover of David Bowie’s “Fame” during the reunion scene later in the film (and are listed in the credits as The Willies). I remember feeling as though I had finally gotten to see them “live,” despite my encountering them in such an artificial way; just the opening of the scene, where the camera moves right to left past all of the musicians, seemed to convey something about their performance attitude that informed subsequent listens to my well-worn cassette-tape of The Good Earth. And the film’s use of musical cues from their other songs not only seemed to be some weird validation for my interest in the band but also allowed their “live” presence in the reunion scene to hover over other scenes as well.

May 01, 2012 8:35 AM  
Blogger Teddy Pasternak said...

The Yardbirds with both Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page in Antonioni's Blow-Up. Beck and Page were only in the band at the same time for about six months and it's pretty cool that they were captured on film. Antonioni wanted The Who for the scene as he was fascinated by Pete Townsend's guitar-smashing but they declined. He instead asked Jeff Beck to smash a guitar instead.

May 01, 2012 11:03 AM  
Anonymous Kashan said...

Begum Akhtar, Wahid Khan and Bismillah Khan in Ray's Jalsaghar. This is out an out fiction and cannot be dubbed as a docu-fiction on the artists but they set the punctuations in the movie...

May 01, 2012 2:08 PM  
Anonymous James Keepnews said...

I remain completely astonished that so august a cast of film-critical characters could assemble a list of the "Best Acting Performance(s) by a Musical Performer" as they did for the Sept./Oct. 2009 Film Comment and not include what is for my money the finest performance by a musician in any film I've ever seen -- viz. Mihaly Vig's hypnotic turn as the coolly manipulative con man in Sátántangó. His equally hypnotic soundtracks for all of Bela Tarr's films deserve to be on a couple few lists themselves.

May 01, 2012 3:13 PM  
Blogger Jason Mittell said...

Great topic! I recently watched An American in Paris and was impressed by the Oscar Levant scenes playing the piano - as an amateur musician, it always strikes me as story-shattering when an onscreen instrument is played poorly, but Levant is so clearly playing accurately that it really kept me in the performances (I doubt any of it was recorded live, but he was very good at synching to the recording).

Another very different example - in Almost Famous there are many great musical performances, but one of my favorites is a brief throwaway moment where William sees Stillwater's bassist playing & singing guitar with one of the band-aids in a hotel room - the character (who barely speaks) was played by Mark Kozelek, a great musician known as the leader of Red House Painters. Although it was an in-character (and in-period) performance, it felt that Kozelek's rock star presence leaped out in that brief moment.

May 02, 2012 9:31 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you, all, for these great examples!

Jason, apologies: I misspelled your name in the post. I've corrected it now.

May 02, 2012 8:32 PM  
Blogger girish said...

In addition, a number of interesting examples were posted on my Facebook and Twitter pages. I'll try to gather and post them here.

May 02, 2012 8:35 PM  
Anonymous Adrian said...


May 04, 2012 9:58 AM  
Blogger Fredrik said...

Thanks for mentioning me! I very much like your blog too. I'm glad that you mentioned BALL OF FIRE. Hawks and music is a topic in its own right (I once gave a talk on it) and some of the best sequences from his oeuvre involve music (such as Jean Arthur at the piano in ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS or Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson singing together in RIO BRAVO, with Walter Brennan on the harmonica.) And then there is Hoagy Carmichael in TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT, seen composing and playing with Lauren Bacall. Actually, there's a lot to be said about Hoagy in general. He appeared in a number of film, as a musician, but also as something more, as some kind of centre piece of the action, even if he might appear only briefly. Good films in which he appeared includes YOUNG MAN WITH A HORN (Curtiz 1950), THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (Wyler 1946) and CANYON PASSAGE (Tourneur 1946).

May 04, 2012 11:17 AM  
Anonymous Colin said...

You seem to have mixed up Michael Roemer, who directed NOTHING BUT A MAN and PLOT AGAINST HARRY, with Robert M. Young, who had made ALAMBRISTA! among a few other things before ONE TRICK PONY.

May 09, 2012 3:01 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Ah, Colin, I should've been clearer: Robert M. Young didn't direct but instead produced NOTHING BUT A MAN and THE PLOT AGAINST HARRY. He also co-wrote the former.

May 09, 2012 3:10 PM  
Anonymous Johan Andreasson said...

I first saw George Brassens in Rene Clair’s PORTE DES LILAS:

May 11, 2012 12:02 PM  
Blogger girish said...

A new post coming up today...

May 15, 2012 8:55 AM  

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