I’ve mentioned my love for silent film with live soundtrack before and as though the Gods of cultural oddity were reading my badly-punctuated plea for more, a whole initiative has sprung forth, promising to unite more films from the silent canon with contemporary musical accompaniment. Wunderbar!
The latest incarnation of this magnificently diabolical marriage of sight and sound to occur in Newcastle took place at the Tyneside Cinema on Monday night. As part of the Birds Eye View Film Festival, an annual celebration of women’s contribution to filmmaking, the Tyneside hosted a one-off screening of the classic silent Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde with live accompaniment from Blue Roses aka singer-songwriter Laura Groves.
It’s difficult to ascertain exactly what musical score would have accompanied a silent film on its original release. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is 92 years old to be fair and, as far as anyone can tell, the musical element of silent film screenings was done on a fairly random basis. I imagine a 1920 screening of the film to involve a Phantom of the Opera-style church organist, using their whole body to batter reluctant keys and filling the auditorium with the dull vibrating wheeze of metal pipes. Duh-duh-duuuuhhhhh.
And yet, a young woman, standing in what would be the orchestra pit, strumming moody chords on a bright yellow electric guitar while her band mates thrashed cymbals and teased strange distorted sounds from a tiny synth-box, just felt right. The original film adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s abhorrent tale of extreme split personality, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is curiously disturbing, in a way that seemed to come so naturally to early filmmakers. Achieved without special effects, John Barrymore’s grotesque, writhing transformation into the decrepit Mr Hyde begs for the discordant clash of cymbals and drums, but Blue Roses played it cool.
Rather than overshadowing the performance on screen, they intensified the film’s own chiaroscuro, using their eclectic and detailed style to lighten the comedy and darken the tragedy. The wide range of instruments used was testament to Blue Roses dedication to expressing the mood of the film as they see it, or hear it to be more precise. The melancholy, gentle wailing sang whenever Dr Jekyll’s lovelorn fiancée Millicent was on screen added a poignantly emotional element to the performance the silent images alone might struggle to achieve.
Channelling something of this classic film’s essence in their intensely orchestrated soundtrack, the Blue Roses created an enchanting aural narrative that brought the film to life in a truly unique performance.