THE MAN IN THE MACHINE ( Kraftwerk Live at Disney Hall )

Kraftwerk - silhouettes

One of the most momentous discoveries of my musical life happened almost by accident.  I was a teenager at boarding-school, just hanging out one afternoon, when one of my friends sauntered by.

“Read about a pretty cool album in this week’s New Musical Express.  You should check it out.”

He ambled away down the corridor, and after a few minutes returned with a copy of the music broadsheet.  On the cover were four men dressed in red shirts and black ties, hair plastered down, heavily made up, their faces locked in expressionless sideways gazes, arranged in a highly stylized shot that reeked of both Teutonic totalitarianism and mechanistic macho.

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“I think this might be right up your alley”.  No, he wasn’t making a crack at my expense.  My friend knew that I was heavily into avant-garde classical music, and especially the German avatar of progressive and electronic music, Karlheinz Stockhausen.

He opened the paper to the feature review.  It was of an album called The Man Machine, and those four men on the cover were its creatorscollectively known as Kraftwerk.

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From the moment I started reading about this band I realized this was music I had to investigate.  I inhaled the article.  I was only just starting to listen to pop and rock seriously; up until then I had been strictly into classical and jazz, assembling a semi-improvisatory ensemble when I was 12.  But recently I had discovered Pink Floyd and David Bowie and was getting really fired up by these new musical worlds.  By the time I finished the article I knew I had to have the record, and headed down to the local record store as soon as I could.  That record is still with me, one of my prized possessions, albeit with one chewed corner courtesy of a family pup who bypassed Bach and Basie in favor of Krautrock, discriminating fellow that he was.  On a good system this record sounds like you are inside the man machine.  Those analog synths and drums are fat.  None of the reissues or even the American pressing comes close to the sound of that original English pressing.

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I will never forget the first time I played the album.  It was on headphones and I didn’t just listen.  I was absorbed into the music, and into a sound world unlike any other.  The electronic canvas was so rich it felt organic, and the short, motivic melodies were immediately catchy.  The occasional human voices, often fed through a range of processing devices, were flat and mechanistic, yet also oddly imbued with real feeling.  There was a sense of melancholic machine chanting.  The B-side led off with a number that is the closest the group has ever come to a conventional single, The Model.   The song plays on how we objectify feminine beauty, turning models into remote, almost technological creatures: infinitely desirable, and infinitely unapproachable.  It is an incisive piece of musical observation, made all the more poignant for the yearning that lurks just beneath the surface.  That yearning is transmogrified into something both familiar and otherworldly in the next song, Neon Lights, a tour de force of electronic expressionism.  I think it is their greatest track, a road song of the modern urban experience, driving through canyons of steel with the neon lights of the city dancing and dazzling the senses.  Cascades of shimmering synthesizers ripple over a relentless march beat and a simple, haunting melody, again tinged with melancholy.

Neon lights

Shimmering neon lights

And at the fall of night

The city’s made of light.

Neon Lights live

Many a time I have found myself on a freeway, sometimes with a light or heavy rain to deepen the electric shadows, with that music playing on the stereo or in my memory.  I am sucked into a netherworld of strange, Metropolis beauty.  (Metropolis, not surprisingly, is the title of another track on the album: an apt hommage to Fritz Lang’s silent epic which defined the modern cityscape on film, in our heads, and finally in reality).

The Tower of Babel in Metropolis

The Tower of Babel in Metropolis (1927)

Kraftwerk performing Metropolis

Metropolis live

I still hear details in that record that I’ve not heard before, it is that well-crafted.  At the time of the album’s release I was not alone in the opinion that this group was creating something unique, not just in pop music, but in music, period.  I immediately bought their earlier albums, Autobahn and Trans-Europe Express.

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I quickly discovered that Kraftwerk were sui generis, and today they are hailed as the most influential group ever, even more so than The Beatles.  And it’s not just the music which continues to ripple through practically every genre, even non-electronic music.  (Listen to Philip Glass or Steve Reich and Kraftwerk is right there at the heart of their work.  No surprise then that their appearance at Disney Hall is part of a citywide celebration of musical minimalism).  Kraftwerk’s stripped-down sense of design, for example, was a huge influence on Peter Saville, who designed covers for Joy Division and New Order, and spawned a million imitators.

Joy Division Unknown Pleasures cover

Peter Saville's cover for Blue Monday single

Peter Saville’s cover for Blue Monday single

At the time these record covers were the complete opposite of Roger Dean’s visual fantasias for Yes, as was the music.  Everything was stripped down to the essentials.  Repetitious and hypnotic rhythms were so carefully layered that they avoided any of the dead-hand quality of their numerous imitators.  Melodies were short and mesmeric, and full of romantic yearning.  Kraftwerk’s tunes are some of the most memorable in pop.  That romantic quality evokes the human in the machine, and it is in that domain that Kraftwerk’s music breathes and finds its staying power.  The only other techno act that I think approaches that quality is Massive Attack, but it does so with more conventional vocals laid on top of the electronic palette.

In the Kling-Klang studio

In the Kling-Klang studio

The thing about Kraftwerk is that it’s a band whose work still sounds incredibly modern at the same time as feeling timeless.   No matter that you can hear the evolutions in electronic instrument technology from album to album. (Techno Pop, formerly Electric Café, is suffused with the new digital technology of Yamaha’s DX-7 synth, and was the least well-received of their albums, though in its new remastering it is redeemed).  Timeless, indeed, as the masterworks of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and Wagner that came out of Germany’s classical tradition.  But it was in reaction to that tradition that Kraftwerk crafted its distinctive sound and ethos.

Kraftwerk_by_Ueli_Frey_(1976)

After the war, German musicians wanted to do, and be, anything so long as it was far away from the German classical tradition which had been heavily tainted by its co-option by Hitler into his promotion of the Aryan ideal.  Young musicians needed to turn their back on centuries of German high culture, but they also shied away from the popular forms of their conquerors.  Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider started Kraftwerk in 1970 within the loose umbrella of the Krautrock movement, and their early albums used conventional instruments and free-form improvisation seasoned with the spice of electronic manipulation.  But their compositions were essentially conventional in method and execution.

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That all changed with Autobahn, whose single A-side concept piece was an electronic realization of the aural and aesthetic experience of crossing Germany via the new freeway system that had no speed limit.

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It was a revelation, both for what electronics could now do, and for its reinvention of what a pop record could be.  And it was as potent in its ideas — of sound as movement, and vice versa; of engagement with technology as romantic — as it was in its execution.  Its successors were no less influential.  In particular, Trans-Europe Express, which did for rail travel what Autobahn had done for motorways.   Together with The Man Machine and Computer World, these albums created a sense of what it felt like to exist as a human being in the late 20th century: one’s humanity slowly leeching away from the organic experience of life, through the mediation of technology, into something both immediate and distancing, something “other”.

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On Trans Europe Express people remember the epic title track and its extension, Metal on Metal, but they forget about the haunting Hall of Mirrors, a meditation on identity and celebrity with glistening synthesizer figures rippling against a pointed refrain (“Even the greatest stars discover themselves in the looking-glass”), and the elegiac Franz Schubert, a techno call-out to Germany’s most lyrical and poetic composer, who in the here and now is buried beneath the literal and aesthetic railroad tracks of the new Germany.

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It is often claimed that hip-hop begins with Afrika Bambaataa’s 1982 club hit Planet Rock, which quotes from Trans-Europe Express and Computer World I remember hearing this on the dance floor of London’s legendary Camden Palace, and being blown away both by the fact that I knew where the melody and rhythm had come from, and that they now existed in this cool new context.

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But back to The Man Machine, which I think is Kraftwerk’s most fully realized and perfect record.  This was the album in which the individual members of the band finally disappeared into their conceptual creation.  They became their own robots, literally using mechanical alter-egos in videos and live performance.

This week I revisited this album in vivo, so to speak, as part of the band’s 4-day trip through their complete oeuvre in live performance in the iconic performing space of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles.

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Two modern icons working in tandem, so to speak.

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Only Ralf Hutter of the original band still remains, one of four “operators” onstage (Fritz Hilpert, Henning Schmitz and Falk Grieffenhagen), all standing behind minimalist work stations (one of whom “mixes” the 3-D visual component of the show in real time).

Kraftwerk - Hutter projection

Quite apart from the excitement of finally seeing one of my favorite bands in action, I couldn’t wait to see how music that is so essentially “canned” would work as a live show.  Stripped of the crowd-pleasing elements of the typical live rock or pop show, like barnstorming guitar or drum solos, I wondered how well the Kraftwerk aesthetic of complete control and pre-determination would play for an audience.

Kraftwerk in 1981

Kraftwerk in 1981

It took about a minute for my doubts to evaporate.  First of all the sound, the best I’ve ever heard at a live rock show, was both muscular and delicate, subtle and forceful, going as deep as any bass I’ve ever heard.  And it travelled through the space – around, about, and in and out.  No doubt those famous Disney acoustics had a hand in rendering the Kraftwerk sound so vividly and precisely.

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Whatever elements were pre-programmed, nothing about the musical performance felt canned, and the personality of each member of the band clearly emerged in the ways in which familiar musical lines were varied, embellished, speeded up and slowed down.  In a nice touch at the end, each player had a chance to improvise at his work station, and I was left wishing they had done a little bit more performing on the musical fly.

Kraftwerk onstage current

But it was the visuals that added a whole new dimension to the Kraftwerk experience.  On a large screen behind the four band members (who wore black suits with grids on them), a mixture of ultra-high tech and almost retro video, fully exploiting the ability of 3-D imagery to pluck at your eyes, created a fully integrated “happening”.

Kraftwerk - Disney Concert Hall - March 18, 2014

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Kraftwerk live w: drawings

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In fact, the whole evening felt closer to a piece of performance art than to a concert, which is no doubt one of the reasons why these events have been mostly presented in museums and architecturally significant spaces rather than stadiums.  Viewing and hearing the Kraftwerk oeuvre as a whole one was struck not just by its originality and uniqueness, but by its prophetic nature.

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Everything about how technology has come to shape our lives was there in this extraordinary music, created years before this phenomenon fully came to pass.  Nowhere was this more evident than in a sequence from Computer World.

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Here, patterns of fluorescent numbers flashed by and undulated towards us in sensual waves, while the music alternatively spiked and caressed, threatened and lulled.  It all perfectly caught the dichotomy of our love-hate affair with personal technology.

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The most chilling note was sounded with the performance of Radioactivity from the lesser-known album of the same name.

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Against a deeply funky groove, the names of nuclear incidents like Chernobyl and Harrisburg flashed on the screen, and then —

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Fukushima copy

Germany has committed itself to going nuclear-free within a couple of decades.  In a nice twist of fate, the country that originated modern mechanized warfare with the objective of cultural subjugation and annihilation has become more sensitive to the lessons of technological misdeeds than its conquerors.  Maybe the rest of us, those who are inclined to forget the lessons of history, and are unwilling to accept the prophecies of climate science, are indeed destined to dance with Death into oblivion.  If so, it will be in beautiful buildings like Disney Hall, and all to the techno stylings of a generation of musicians who confronted the dehumanizing legacy of their forefathers by seeking the man in the machine, and vice-versa.  It is an irony at which Mr. Hutter would no doubt smile.

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Kraftwerk Boing

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And in the world of Kraftwerk cover bands —

KKK4 cover & back

Peter Gabriel - Security cover

An excellent documentary about the making of one of the greatest rock albums of the 80s, and a highly influential one too. Peter Gabriel broke new ground in terms of integrating world music and the latest sampling and synthesizer technology into the soundscapes of one of his most adventurous albums. This documentary originally aired on British TV’s South Bank Show, and offers a unique opportunity to see this highly-regarded musician exploring new terrain. It is the best documentary I’ve ever seen about how a rock album is created.

And follow this link for a superb archive of photos taken by Larry Fast, who contributed synthesizers to this and several other Gabriel albums, during the sessions and the resulting tours.

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THE MYSTERY OF THE MISSING MUSIC CUE ( or How “An American Werewolf in London” Lost Its Bite )

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‘Tis the season of mysteries. And in the movie world one of many recurring mysteries is why so many film directors insist on shooting themselves in the foot, music-wise.

As in: wrong music, too much music, not enough music, music in the wrong places, and, in the most peculiar scenario of all, going to the trouble of hiring a great composer and not letting him (or her) do the job.

This comes to mind since I was recently sitting in on a film music class at UCLA, and under discussion was the issue of a director’s and composer’s intent. We looked at scenes with cues that had been shuffled to see how readily an audience picks up on music that was not originally intended for the images it played with. The answer is that film sends pretty strong signals as to what kind of music will work in any given scene, and an audience intuitively gets all of them. So mess with the natural order at your peril.

I once witnessed the phenomenon of a director shutting down his composer, and thereby unintentionally hobbling his film, during the sessions for An American Werewolf in London.

I was at university, incurring the wrath (or at least the healthy skepticism) of my professors by writing a thesis on the film music of Bernard Herrmann. This was not quite the done thing within a traditional academic syllabus, especially since I was attempting to examine the interrelationship between music and image in detail, in a truly cross-disciplinary way. I was certainly no expert in film theory; but I felt I knew enough to make the attempt. The thesis included a cue-by-cue analysis of Citizen Kane and Psycho, but I could not lay my hands on the scores for these filmsHerrmann had passed away some years earlier (the night of completing the final mix for Taxi Driver), so I contacted his last producer, Christopher Palmer, in the hopes that he could help me find the material I needed.

Christopher PalmerAt that time Christopher Palmer was the guy in film music, the only one who was writing about it seriously in the mainstream media, and helping to put together recording projects like the RCA Hollywood Classic Film Score Series and the Herrmann Phase 4 records, touchstones for how to present film music properly on LP. He was also working as an orchestrator and composer in his own right.

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Phase 4 Fantasy Film World of BH

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Back then, few people took film music seriously. Certainly not the music establishment, classical or pop. I was one of a growing number of avid film music fans whose obsession was beginning to ripple through popular culture owing to the chart topping success of John Williams’s scores for Star Wars and Close Encounters. Suddenly one was starting to see dedicated film music concerts taking place, and the RCA series of records had paved the way for new LP compilations. While Williams was the rock star of film music, Herrmann was considered the Old Master — albeit an entirely modernist one.

One memorable day, Christopher handed over bound photocopies of the autographed scores to Citizen Kane and Psycho.

“So, Mark”, Chris said, as my mouth fell open at the sight of Herrmann’s own handwriting on the scores, “Have you ever been to a film scoring session?”

“No,” I replied.

“Well, if you are going to write about film music you’d better come and see how it’s done. I’m producing a session for Elmer Bernstein in a couple of weeks. Come and sit in.”

Bernstein and Palmer in 1995

Bernstein and Palmer in 1995

It turned out the session was around the corner from where we lived, in the London village of Barnes, on the shores of the Thames. The annual Oxford/Cambridge Boat Race used to pass by the high street.

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As I walked through the doors of Olympic Studios I had little idea of the roll call of legendary musicians in whose footsteps I was following. I quickly found out, since the equally legendary engineer for the sessions, Keith Grant, had also done the honors for the likes of the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton, and King Crimson. And during breaks he liked to tell stories. Boy do I wish I had written them down.

B.B King recording at Olympic in 1971, with Ringo Starr (far left) plus bassist Klaus Voormann, Fleetwood Mac's Peter Green on guitar and Steve Marriott on harmonica (all centre left).

B.B King (center right) recording in Studio One at Olympic in 1971, with Ringo Starr (far left) plus bassist Klaus Voormann, Fleetwood Mac’s Peter Green on guitar and Steve Marriott on harmonica (all centre left).

Anyway, as Christopher Palmer settled in for the session I noticed a bearded gentleman sitting in the corner of the control room. He wasn’t saying much, at least not yet, but I quickly gleaned he was the director. On hearing his name I got pretty excited, because John Landis had made one of my favorite guilty movie pleasures at university: National Lampoon’s Animal House. Back then, this would screen regularly on a Friday night at 11 to a packed house of pale English students, eager to soak up the anarchies of American campus life, complete with John Belushi gross-outs and topless co-eds, as we munched on greasy chips out of newspaper, smothered in salt and vinegar.

As the session got under way Landis lived up to all my expectations of what a young, hot-shot American director would be like. He was heavily bearded and wore a baseball cap like Steven Spielberg, and was constantly, brashly conversational, full of banter, movie gossip and opinions.

Bernstein (l) and Landis

Bernstein (l) and Landis

Out on the floor of Studio One, Elmer Bernstein, the distinguished composer of such classics as The Magnificent Seven, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Great Escape, who had also written the music for Animal House, was revving up his scratch orchestra, a selection of the top studio and orchestral musicians in London. Recording film music is a profoundly technical process, because everything has to time out perfectly. As I watched Bernstein, baton at the ready, scrutinize the screen with its specially prepared clips from the film (cued with dots and moving lines scatched into the film, known as punches and streamers) and repeatedly cue in his musicians perfectly, I marveled at the marriage of musicianship and mathematical precision by which he had composed his cues in meters that ran in tandem with set numbers of film frames. You were never aware of the technological underpinnings: the music flowed with the images as if it had been conjured with no need to perfectly match markers in the film’s action. It was just magically “right”. Never doubt the extraordinary craft and artistry it takes to sync your musical composition to a film, let alone come up with the melodies, harmonies, counterpoint, orchestration that work with the film’s action, its emotion, its sub-text – and do not distract.

Anyway, as the film unspooled it rapidly became clear that it was something quite unusual for a horror film. Two American students were backpacking around England. The tone was light and breezy. And then something odd happened.

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Getting lost, they got caught out on the moors at night. There was a full moon. Suddenly they were attacked by a wild animal, and one of them was brutally, bloodily killed.

The hero, David (David Naughton) languished in hospital having his wounds tended to by Nurse Alex. Alex was played by the actress who had been the object of a generation of English schoolboys’ fantasies, Jenny Agutter. Naturally she was wearing a nurse’s uniform, at the sight of which swathes of english manhood were felled on the spot.

an_american_werewolf_in_london Agutter and David

David started to have odd dreams, and in the cartoonish nightmare imagery of those dreams it was clear this was a film which was taking the usually predictable horror form and upending it with something fresh, fun, and still very scary.

AWIL dream transformation

Nurse Alex starts to take more of a personal interest in her charge, and when he is discharged she invites him home to stay with her. Pretty soon she is tending to more than his wounds.

AWIL Agutter in shower

Now we arrived at the scene which Landis had been proclaiming to the assembled control room was going to “blow the movie out of the water”: the first transformation scene, in which the hero gets fully in touch with his inner lupus. But an odd thing happened. As Bernstein lifted his arms to record the cue, Landis leaned into the mixing console microphone and pressed the talkback button.

“Er, Elmer, that’s fine, but we’re not gonna use it.”

Bernstein shot back: “You haven’t heard it yet.”

“Yeah, I know, but we talked about this. We’re gonna use Blue Moon.”

 “Have you got the rights?”

At this point Landis’s equally bearded producer, George Folsey, Jr., chimed in: “We’re waiting to hear back.”

“What if they say no?” persisted Bernstein.

“They won’t”, said Landis, though it was clear from the look he exchanged with his producer that they might.

“Yeah, they might,” said Bernstein, who was as canny an old-hand in the music biz as you’ll ever meet. “Then what’ll you do? You need music here. You might like what I’ve got better”.

“Ok, Elmer,” Landis said, clearly not thinking this was possible.

Bernstein was determined. He raised his arms. Up went the bows. Silence. The film cued up.

The scene began, and so did the music. And both were something else.

The full moon rose. The hero, alone in the nurse’s flat, screamed, fell to the ground. And something started to happen, unlike anything I, or anyone else at the session, had seen on film before.

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His clothes ripped, his muscles rippled, his skeleton and skin stretched. But it was all happening on-screen in real time. There were no dissolves as in the classic werewolf movies I had grown up with. A man was violently turning into a very large, rapacious werewolf indeed. It was brilliant.

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The work of now legendary make-up designer Rick Baker, then relatively unknown, was extraordinary. This was the first time we saw animated prosthetics on camera, and they were combined with carefully animated visual effects to create a vivid illusion of metamorphosis. Bones expanded, fur grew, nails turned into claws, ears elongated, and eyes darkened as the beast within was unleashed.

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In the final coup de théâtre the hero’s elongated wolvine jaw pushed forward, stretching the human face into a fanged canine muzzle. The newly birthed American Werewolf howled to the moon.

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And with every extravagant metamorphosis on screen the music more than kept pace: it drove the transformation. It gave voice to our horror, and the character’s terror, at what was happening, at the same time as capturing all the grand beauty of the spectacle. As the sequence ended and the music smashed to its conclusion, the orchestra and control room erupted into applause. This is a rare thing. London session musicians have seen and heard it all. But it was clear that what we had just witnessed, music and image together, was a showstopper. The combination of groundbreaking visuals and barnstorming music was one for the ages. It would, in the words the director had spoken earlier in the session, “blow the movie out of the water”.

Except…..

Rick Baker (l), David Naughton (c), John Landis (r)

Rick Baker (l), David Naughton (c), John Landis (r)

The orchestra and conductor/composer waited for the pronouncement from the control-room.

“It’s great, Elmer.” John Landis’s voice was authoritative.  “But if I get Blue Moon I’m using it. Let’s move on.”

No one made a comment, but we all knew what we were thinking.

What are you thinking?

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A year later, venturing into a cinema to see the completed film, I secretly prayed that the rights to Blue Moon had been denied, and that the world would see what I had seen and heard that memorable afternoon in Olympic Studios. As the film neared the transformation scene I braced myself. The hero pottered around Jenny Agutter’s flat, the moon rose and –

Blue moon…..

The unmistakeable tones of Sam Cooke rang through the theatre. As the hero submitted to his bodily eruptions I kept hoping John Landis had come to his senses and would segue into Bernstein’s apocalyptic cue. But no. I was left to intellectually appreciate the director’s ironical juxtaposition of music and image, rather than submit to the terror and awe-inspiring horror of a man becoming a beast, red in tooth and claw. The transformation, while still striking, was robbed of its ultimate animal ferocity. It became oddly prosaic, fully serving neither the story nor the audience. Since this was a film that, for all its jokiness, had at its core the tragedy of a man destroyed by his true nature, then playing down the moment when that nature emerged for all the world to see seemed an odd choice. Knowing as I did what the scene could have been with Bernstein’s cue, it was something worse than a missed opportunity. It was a regrettable example of a director remaining wedded to his original concept, rather than listening to what the work itself and his highly experienced collaborator were telling him.

In the end, the scene did not “blow the movie out of the water” — but it certainly blew.

FILM MUSIC AFICIONADOS AND COMPLETISTS, PLEASE SEE MY EXPANDED THOUGHTS ON THIS IN THE COMMENTS BOXES BELOW.

NAPOLEON REDUX ( The Emperor of Films Returns )

Napoleon (Albert Dieudonne) looks at the Polyvision rig for the film's 3-screen climax

Napoleon (Albert Dieudonne) stands next to the Polyvision camera rig for the film’s 3-screen climax

I wouldn’t say it is the greatest movie ever made, but it is certainly one of the greatest moviegoing experiences you will ever have.

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Audiences worldwide may have thrilled to the silent-movie charms of 2011’s Oscar-winner, The Artist, but Londoners are soon to have the chance to take the ultimate cinematic ride – and the ultimate trip into cinema’s haloed past.  On November 30th the Royal Festival Hall plays host to a rare screening of 1927’s Napoleon, vu par Abel Gance in the most recent restoration by Oscar-winning film historian Kevin Brownlow.  When this made its American début last year at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, the Los Angeles Times could merely exclaim, breathlessly: “Napoleon came. Napoleon was seen. Napoleon conquered.”

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This was no mere hyperbole. I was there. Twice. And, even though I had been present at this restoration’s fabled first screening in London over thirty years ago, the screenings in Oakland’s Paramount Theater, a beautifully restored art-deco extravaganza, were in a class of their own. Just entering the lobby transported you into another world.

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Then, as the film itself began, the 21st century receded, and for the next 5-1/2 hours one was was completely immersed in the world of the French Revolution, brought to life with a veracity, vigor and, conversely, modernity, that has yet to be matched. By the time the final triptych had unspooled my 15-year old daughter was rendered speechless with awe.

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She made up for her uncharacteristic muteness by telling everyone during the following weeks she had seen the greatest film ever made. E-V-E-R.

And who amongst those who were there could argue with her? Napoleon is a complete one-off, a film sui generis. The apogee of the silent movie art. To see it under these optimal conditions is truly a once-in-a-lifetime event.

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How could a modern, plugged-in teenager be so completely wowed by a nearly 90-year old silent picture?

Paramount audience

The audience at the Paramount watches, rapt

For starters, the film operates on a level of visual innovation and spectacle that today’s movies are still catching up with. (Gance even did tests for shooting some of it in 3D). Then there are those obsessively detailed sets and costumes which give the film an incredibly authentic feel and texture. Scenes in Corsica were shot in Napoleon’s actual family home on the island.

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The performances range from grand to intimate, with a sense of commitment that is riveting.

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Vladimir Roudenko as the young Napoleon

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Edmond van Daele as Robespierre

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Albert Dieudonne (Napoleon) embraces Josephine (Gina Manes) and the world

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Abel Gance as the charismatic St. Juste

Death of Marat

Death of Marat (Antonin Artaud)

The ghosts of the Revolution

The ghosts of the Revolution

Then there’s Carl Davis’s score, performed by a live orchestra, which forms a visceral conduit into both the period and the emotions of the drama. (Comparing it to the insipid score by Carmine Coppola, the only music Americans had heard during previous road shows of the restoration in this country, provides an object lesson in good and bad film scoring.)

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Carl Davis rehearsing the Oakland East Bay Symphony in the Paramount Theater

The audience in London, like that in Oakland, will be seeing the most complete version of the film in existence, a restoration that has occupied Brownlow for a lifetime, funded by the British Film Institute and Photoplay Productions.  It will be projected at the correct speed (making movement more naturalistic), and is hand tinted. Accompanying it will be that same original score composed and conducted by Carl Davis.

Camera mounted on a horse to film the Corsican chase sequence

Camera mounted on a horse to film the Corsican chase sequence

Over a period of more than four decades, Davis and Brownlow, together with producing partners Patrick Stanbury and David Gill (who died in 1997), have done more than anyone to bring silent films back from the grave of decaying film libraries, where 73% of films made before the coming of sound have crumbled into dust. Through a plethora of documentaries and live presentations in grand theatres with symphony orchestras, classics like Greed and Ben-Hur, as well as lesser-known gems like The Wind and The Chess Player, have all left viewers agog at the forgotten accomplishments of filmmakers of the silent era.

poster italian napoleon gance

Napoleon, though, is the one to beat: a film whose ambition to redefine the art-form is evident in every frame. Originally intended to be six films covering Bonaparte’s entire life, in the end Gance blew his entire budget on Part One.

Napoleon the french epic film poster

By the time of its première at the Paris Opéra in 1927 the film had already being cut down by its nervous producers.

Napoleon newspaper review

In the succeeding decades the film was scattered across archives, private collections, and flea markets around the world.

Napoleon book cover

Gance himself never regained his full creative powers: a later, sound version of the film that incorporates some of the original footage has none of the original’s flair. By 1953, when the 15-year-old Kevin Brownlow, already an avid collector of silent films, screened fragments of a home-movie version in his makeshift home cinema, Gance and his film barely made the footnotes in movie histories. The story of Brownlow’s quest to restore the film, and Gance’s reputation, is one of those tales from the back rooms of film history that is as riveting as the film itself.

Brownlow and Gance triptych

The film covers Napoleon’s childhood days at military school, the Revolution and his rise to power, his romance with Josephine, and climaxes with his leading the French army to liberate Italy.  I was lucky enough to be present at the restoration’s first, now legendary screening, at the Empire Theater in Leicester Square, back in 1980.

Napoleon at Empire

It was the only venue with a screen wide enough to accommodate the 3-screen/3-projector finale, and an auditorium big enough for a 60-strong symphony orchestra.  From the start you could tell you were watching something unique.  The effect on the audience was no different from what Brownlow remembers when he first ran fragments of the film on his 9.5mm home projector as a teenager.  “The camera did things that I didn’t think it could do, and it represented the cinema as I thought it ought to be, but had never seen an example of.  It was beautifully, brilliantly staged.  It looked like an 18th century newsreel.  You couldn’t believe this had been shot in the 20s.”

Napoleon on ship

The aftermath of battle

The aftermath of battle

When the first of many bravura editing sequences unspooled, the audience knew it was in for a rollercoaster.  A snowball fight between two “armies” of young cadets, in which the young Napoleon demonstrates his aptitude for future military leadership by successfully charging and occupying the opposing camp, turned into a pyrotechnical workout for the camera as it was hurled, literally, into the action.

Young Napoleon

It was many years into his quest for lost footage before Brownlow first clapped eyes on this sequence.  He was sitting in the archives of the French Cinémathèque, an organization which had already demonstrated its disdain for what it considered the hubristic efforts of an Englishman daring to restore a French classic. Left alone for a few moments with an unlabelled can of film, Brownlow examined the reel within against the light: “I couldn’t believe it! This snowball fight was like “Rosebud” [in Citizen Kane].  It was constantly talked about as a masterpiece of rapid cutting, but was never seen. And I happened to be very interested in rapid cutting. I thought it had been invented by Eisenstein. When [the archivist] Marie Epstein came back in she was quite upset that I had started looking in her absence, but she had a good heart and coaxed the film through the flatbed viewer, and I always regard that experience as one of the greatest moments of my life.

Napoleon snowball fight

“It was the most astonishing piece of editing I had ever seen, and it was a perfect example of the avant-garde in the mainstream of French cinema.  Gance tried to make the audience into active participants.  You get punched on the nose, you fall over, and you run away.” (The editing throughout Napoleon is all the more extraordinary for the fact that it was done by hand, without the benefit of a flatbed or movieola; Gance would hold the film up to the light to figure out where to make his cuts).

Napoleon snowball fight storming barricades

BouleDeNeiges

Crew filming the snowball fight. Note the camera mounted on a sled. Gance is circled.

Crew filming the snowball fight, with cameraman sitting on a sled.

Later on, during a dormitory pillow fight, Gance not only accelerates the tempo of his editing with cuts that last as little as a few frames, but also divides the screen into multiple segments, all with their own independent fast-cutting images.

Napoleon pillowfight multiscreen

This he considered the first use of what he called Polyvision, which in the final section of the film became three screens – pre-dating Cinerama by twenty-five years.

Polyvision_rig

Polyvision rig for triptych

Abel Gance saw film as an immersive medium of poetry and passion, and his editing was as much about conjuring ideas as it was emotions.  Brownlow: “In a scene in which Napoleon was escaping from Corsica in a dinghy, he gets caught in a storm and it intercuts with a riot in the Revolutionary Convention.  Gance wanted to express Victor Hugo’s thought that to be a member of the Convention was like being a wave on the ocean, and the technical director built a pendulum hanging from the ceiling of the studio, to swing the camera over the extras.  I remember Gance saying that the crowd reacted in their cringing very effectively, and you do get the feeling that you’re in the storm at sea, as well as in the storm of the Convention, and you can see a man drowning among his fellow members of the Convention.”

Napoleon in storm

This sequence had a powerful effect on the English director Sir Alan Parker, who was then shooting the big-screen adaptation of Pink Floyd The Wall:  “After seeing Napoleon I built a giant pendulum rig over a swimming pool at Pinewood Studios for a scene where Bob Geldof, with flailing arms, seems to be drowning in his own blood.”

The Wall Geldof in pool

Parker continues: “We also threw the camera around at any opportunity, influenced by Gance. A lot of the film was hand-held cameras.  Gance taught us that all the usual rules could be broken to create cinematic energy, and a surreal, anarchic, in-your-face film like The Wall was a perfect vehicle.”

Here, from 1980, is a short film in which Kevin Brownlow talks about Gance and his many innovations, with extensive clips from Napoleon:

Abel Gance with Francois Truffaut

Abel Gance with Francois Truffaut

The great American film director King Vidor once said that music was responsible for half of a film’s emotion and effectiveness.  Brownlow is quick to acknowledge that a huge part of the success of his restoration is owed to composer/conductor Carl Davis.

Carl Davis w: score

Davis, who was born in New York, is a true polymath, having grown up listening to and performing every kind of music, from jazz to ballet. His move to London in the early 1960s was prompted by the excitement of the arts scene there, and a desire to write music for drama. “There was a lot of classic theater, there was film and the standards of television were very, very high. What went on English TV was very ambitious, and still is.”

Davis met up with Brownlow and his then producing partner David Gill for a TV documentary series about the silent era, Hollywood (1980) which had grown out of Brownlow’s defining book on the subject, The Parade’s Gone By.

Brownlow:Davis:Gill

Brownlow (l), Davis (c) & David Gill

Over the course of thirteen one-hour programs Davis had supplied a huge range of music in a multiplicity of styles and orchestrations.  In preparation he had spoken to numerous musicians of the silent era, and had integrated their techniques of matching borrowed music with original themes.  When it was announced that Napoleon would be their first “live” presentation of a silent, he had just over three months to come up with five hours of music. There simply wasn’t the time for him to compose a completely original score.

Brownlow: “Carl came up with this fantastic idea, an idea of genius, which was to use composers that were alive when Napoleon was alive, which gave the film the most extraordinary authentic feeling, which it has anyway, but it enhances it tremendously.”

Portrait of Beethoven by Kloeber (1818)

Portrait of Beethoven by Kloeber (1818)

At the core of this group of composers was Beethoven, who had famously dedicated his Third Symphony to Napoleon, only to scratch out the dedication upon hearing of Napoleon declaring himself Emperor.

eroica title page

Davis: “Beethoven did four versions of the Eroica theme – the symphony, a set of piano variations, a ballet (The Creatures of Prometheus), and a contredanse.  It was an idée fixe for him.  I also used Egmont, music for plays, marches, minuets.  The idea from an artistic view was not to make it seem random.  If the whole film is a biography, a portrait of Napoleon, it could also be a study in the music of Napoleon’s time.  Mozart, Haydn, Cherubini, Gluck….“

In typically impish fashion, Gance decided to throw down his own musical challenge. A long, central sequence features Parisians hearing the anthem of the Revolution, the Marseillaise, for the first time, and learning to sing it.  This in a silent film! Davis rises to the occasion with a virtuoso set of variations, and elsewhere throws in other popular songs of the period for good measure.

Learning the Marseillaise

Learning the Marseillaise

However, one important visual and thematic strand of the film did not yet have a musical identity.  Davis: “There was an almost sci-fi view of Napoleon as omniscient, linked to some great force of nature, unstoppable, implacable – an expression of an ideal that had to do with the 1920s as opposed to the 1790s.

Napoleon Dieudonne profile

“There I had to write something myself that was more like a Hollywood kind of theme – grand, noble, immediately accessible, memorable.”

Young Napoleon, taunted by his classmates and disciplined by his teachers, is left alone in a freezing garret.  There he is visited by his pet eagle, and in a vivid inspiration, Gance turns the eagle into the visual metaphor for Napoleon’s destiny, to re-appear at key turning points in the film. It is a moment rife with danger, so on-the-nose that it could easily elicit titters rather than awe from the audience.  But Davis steps forward with his majestic theme to nail the emotion and the idea behind it.  Patrick Stanbury, now Brownlow’s co-producer, but in 1980 just a member of the audience at the first screening, recalls that moment:  “Suddenly it was magic.”

Young Napoleon and the Eagle of Destiny

Young Napoleon and the Eagle of Destiny

Behind the scenes at that first performance in 1980, Davis was heroically keeping the orchestra in sync to the film by his wits alone (disdaining technological assists like click tracks), while the performers were wrestling with some unexpected problems.  Davis: “The actual quantity of music that was sitting on the music stands grew and grew, and finally when we got to the third part, which was very long and very stuck together with tape, suddenly all the music fell on the floor.  It was in the middle of the Bal des Victimes – very lively using Beethoven’s 7th Symphony.  I suddenly lost three quarters of the orchestra, and there is actually a recording of me shouting “Play! Play! Please play!” And we were down on the ground trying to put the music back on the stands again.”

Napoleon w: orchestra @Paramount

In the following videos, Carl Davis talks at greater length about his score.

Assembling the special screen needed for Napoleon at the Paramount

Assembling the special screen needed for Napoleon at the Paramount

On that faraway day in 1980 at the Empire, Leicester Square, I — like my daughter over thirty years later — would never forget the overwhelming impact of the last act of Napoleon. Suddenly, the curtains at the side of the screen drew back, and the image expanded to fill my field of vision. The audience gasped as one — an effect repeated even more emphatically at the Paramount, thirty two years later. Before us unfurled the spectacle of Napoleon’s army on three conjoined screens, in crystalline black and white.  Sometimes the screens join to create continuous panoramas; sometimes they fragment into three sets of evolving images.  It’s a spectacle made all the more vivid for its capture by relatively primitive technology. But that does not account for the artist’s eye, of Gance and of his brilliant cinematographers and camera operators. In this triptych sequence the film expands literally and thematically in every direction, juggling static and moving panoramas and montages that gather together all the imagery of the proceeding five hours, hurling it at you with ever increasing density. Those screens are so bright with the projectors’ reflected light it’s as if the theater’s roof has been lifted off and daylight is streaming in on the audience — a cinematic sunrise.

triptych double stacked

Napoleon - tryptich 7

Napoleon - tryptich 8

Napoleon tryptich 5

Napoleon tryptich 6

Napoleon tryptich 11

napoleon_triptich horse on ridge

Accompanying this spectacle are the rousing cadences of the music’s climax, a mash-up of Beethoven in full cry with Davis’s own transcendent “Eagle of Destiny” theme.

Back in 1980, when Napoleon finally came to an end (and at a certain point it feels like it will never end — the film just keeps topping itself), the theatre erupted into bravos as the film detonated into the red, white and blue tricolor of its final frames spread across three screens.

Final tryptich (Photo: Pamela Gentile)

Final tryptich (Photo: Pamela Gentile)

For Brownlow, after a lifetime struggling to bring this forgotten masterpiece back into the light, the full force of the experience hit home. In his book he recalls that moment: “I looked at the picture as though I’d never seen it before.  I recalled Lillian Gish talking about the premiere of The Birth of a Nation: ‘I sat at the end of a row with men, and during some parts the whole row shook with their sobs, it was so moving.’  Well, I shook my row, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.  I was overcome with relief and suffused with joy that the film was at last being seen as it was supposed to be seen.”

napoleon on mountain ridge

For those heading to the Royal Festival Hall at the end of November, that moment can be relived again in all its cinematic glory. Wish I could be there…..

Gance's inscription

large_current_GanceBrownlow_large

Abel Gance and Kevin Brownlow

Gance with dog

The following “review” of Napoleon includes more excerpts from the film, including the snowball fight (though without Carl Davis’s score, alas).

You can read my full interview with director Sir Alan Parker talking about Kevin Brownlow here. And you can view clips from another classic silent, Flesh and the Devil starring Greta Garbo, with original music by Carl Davis here.