Vocalist Mary Alouette and the djangOrchestra accompanied Clarence G. Badger’s IT (1927) today during a brunch screening at the Nitehawk Cinema in Brooklyn, and the result was surprisingly effective. In the first installment of Nitehawk’s Vamps and Virgins series of silent films with live music, Clara Bow’s iconic performance as a seductive shop girl was narratively enhanced with an inventive combination of Alouette’s ethereal vocals and the four-member ensemble’s Django Reinhardt-style “gypsy jazz.” And the enthusiastic crowd – the largest I’ve seen for a silent at the Williamsburg “cinema eatery” – seemed pleased with the results. I was too, despite my penchant for purism.
Silents with non-traditional accompaniment can be controversial, particularly when a film has an extant original score, or a new one that has become definitive (such as Carl Davis’ 1991 score for IT, which I heard performed live the 2013 TCM Classic Film Festival). But this was no gimmicky musical modification of a cinema classic, like Giorgio Moroder’s much maligned marriage of New Wave pop with Fritz Lang’s METROPOLIS. Using a combination of scat-style vocal improvisation and powerfully throaty renditions of original songs, Alouette actually added texture to the images, lyrically commenting on the action in a style reminiscent of traditional Japanese Benshi narrators.
Alouette also wove in lyrics from “Avalon,” a 1920 Al Jolson hit, and the charmingly nonsensical original song “Blue Violet,” from her 2012 EP Midas. “Life on the ground, how silent the sound, wonder up above,” she sang, as the ensemble performed beneath the silver screen.
Alouette, who told me afterward that she loves silent movies and Flapper culture, was sparing in her use of vocals, allowing the ensemble’s period-appropriate instrumentals to do the lion’s share of the scoring. Composed themes and musical motifs were used to establish characters and situations, and improvisation carried through the connecting action, with Alex Simon and Sami Arefin on guitar, Ethan Foote on bass, and Alex Dadras on percussion. When Alouette wasn’t singing she was electronically punctuating the proceedings with a synth, creating soundscapes meant to represent the ocean or a busy store. The effect was sonically subtle, and almost never distracting.
But the most powerful moment of the screening occurred when Bow’s boss forces a kiss on his unsuspecting employee. Alouette and the Orchestra fell mute, enhancing Betty Lou’s discomfort on screen and reiterating the fact that, at her core, Bow’s “It Girl” was really just looking for love, not a roll in the bedding department. Even with silent film accompaniment, sometimes silence is golden.
As they sometimes do with classics, Nitehawk screened IT from a DVD. This is less than optimal, but not uncommon for silent film screenings at smaller venues. I’ll accept a lesser quality playback medium when the accompaniment is as entertaining and inventive as it was from Alouette and the djangOrchestra.
The Vamps and Virgins series returns on September 28 and 29 with METROPOLIS featuring Black Lodge (likely not performing Gottfried Huppertz’s score) and concludes on October 26-27 with Paul Leni’s THE CAT AND THE CANARY (1927) accompanied by Guizot. Attendance is recommended, particularly if you don’t mind people sitting next to you using cellphones to illuminate their omelettes as they eat.