Seeing a film with a new score played by live musicians — who, just like the audience, have their eyes on the screen as they play — is a treat for the eyes as well as the ears. A musician working in service of a film changes the currency being traded — the artist gives up some creative freedom, and in exchange the film offers a narrative that the audience would normally need to imagine on its own. In some ways the job for both is harder, since the audience must take in a film and new music at the same time, but the rewards can be great when both parties take the deal in the spirit of discovery.
That’s what happened at the January 11 screening of the film in the ongoing Fin de Cinema series curated by Gina Altamura at Portland club Holocene. Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film Beauty and the Beast floats like a cotton candy cloud through a dream world that is both strikingly gorgeous and alarmingly fragile. But for all the astounding visuals and innocent love between the two title characters, the film is driven by the greed and jealousy of the rest of the colorful cast of characters.
This screening divided the film into three parts, with different musicians scoring each section in live performance: EDM-inspired loops and beats by Patricia Wolf, Like a Villain’s voice and effects pedals, and an ad hoc grouping of John Niekrasz on drums, Amenta Abioto on voice and mbira, Jonathan Sielaff on bass clarinet, and Noah Bernstein on alto saxophone. Each soloist and group captured both the film’s beauty and its underlying grit, without overplaying either element. Though the music had a sharp contemporary edge, the film still landed softly, like snowflakes on the eyelashes of its charmed audience like the filmmaker might have intended, more than half a century after it was made.
Cocteau’s classic makes full use of the rudimentary special effects available at that time, along with healthy doses of ingenuity and suspended disbelief. Actors made up to look like statues blink as they stare at Belle, candles light and extinguish themselves, and actors take flight through the magic of film rolling in reverse. Since these techniques are employed sparingly, they don’t draw undue attention to themselves even from a contemporary viewer accustomed to the amazing feats of CGI that come standard with most of today’s Hollywood releases.
Most dazzling of all is the Beast. Looking like David Bowie’s Goblin King from the 1986 film Labyrinth after taking a bath in Rogaine, he is grotesque, yet beautiful and sophisticated. His graceful manners, and his steady kindness to Belle, all communicate a pureness of heart, and he hopes that Belle will fall in love with him. And soon she does, but the tawdrier motivations of the rest of the cast soon break and enter, threatening to come between them.
Each of the musicians played with that dichotomy in their own way. Patricia Wolf’s keyboard loops and beats incorporated a lovely organic quality where the rhythms weren’t perfectly locked into metronomic time. That subtle tension propelled the film through the exposition, imparting a beastly sense of urgency, even though the textures and timbre of her music was the most dream-like of the evening. Like A Villain alternated between, then combined, a rumbling swarm of low-pitched white noise and vibrato-laden operatic singing, defining what made Belle and the Beast different, and then showing how they were actually much more alike than we first assumed.
The quartet of improvisers playing the final third of the film captured the collision of the plot’s driving forces, Belle’s brother and his friend coming to steal her away from the Beast, and hoping to loot the magic castle for the Beast’s treasure. Compared to the two solo musicians who had played, this group created a densely layered musical haze that lent a dark, foreboding atmosphere to the film’s conclusion, with moments of profound calm interspersed.
But it was also somewhat chaotic. The wind players and drummer piled on heavy sounds that were indeed captivating, but so thick they left little space for Abioto’s voice and mbira. The approach fit well with the film, and had many beautiful moments, but the musical clashes also pulled me out of the world of the film more often than necessary. Each of these musicians are top-notch players in Portland’s creative music scene, but coming together for just this one performance presents a huge challenge, and they did admirably, with a few hiccups. In this impromptu aggregation, they weren’t always able to leave sonic space for the others while serving the film at the same time.
Each group also incorporated a few concrete sounds drawn directly from the film’s action. Patricia Wolf introduced samples of chickens squawking as Belle’s sisters shooed away birds on screen. Like a Villain intoned Belle’s repeated “Yes, Beast” as he asked her if she was happy with this and that element of her stay in his castle. The final quartet mimicked the impact of broken glass as Belle’s brother raided the Beast’s Pavilion. In all cases, happily, these concrete sounds always came as a surprise, starting in coordination with the visual, then incorporated into the music, and finally fading away as the action moved on.
Past Fin de Cinema events have featured Akira Kurasawa’s Dreams and Andrei Tarkovksy’s The Mirror scored by Sielaff and Bernstein, as well as Brown Calculus, Palm Dat, and Dylan Stark. This community of artists working at the intersection of pop and experimental music offer an engaging experience to their usual crowd, but fans of new music in jazz or classical idioms will hear kindred spirits as well. Hearing this diverse range of voices all working towards a common goal in a common spirit of discovery was refreshing, and inspiring.