AN early western gets the rockabilly treatment and Balkan klezmer music soundtracks a slice of Soviet socialist realism. Improbable?
Not at the fifth Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema in Bo’ness, when Scotland’s oldest purpose-built cinema, a true Art Deco palace of dreams, marries silent classics and obscure vintage cinematic gems with freshly composed scores, performed live on the night.
Running from 18 to 22 March, HippFest, as it’s known, has become a major event on the silent film buff’s calendar. With core funding from Creative Scotland and Falkirk District Council, the festival is based at the beautifully restored Hippodrome cinema, opened in 1912 and now run by Falkirk Community Trust, although this year’s programme also involves a “pop up cinema” at the station of the famous Bo’ness and Kinneil Railway for Mind the Gap, a screening of railway-themed shorts.
A big attraction is the festival’s commissioning of live scores, which this year sees three world premieres. Moishe’s Bagel will bring their exhilarating blend of jazz-inflected Eastern European and klezmer music to accompany a Soviet propaganda film, Salt for Svanetia, dating from 1930, storyteller Andy Cannon, cellist Wendy Weatherby and piper-guitarist Frank McLaughlin will re-invigorate the John Barrymore version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, while award-winning Border fiddler Shona Mooney will provide a new score for the 1927 epic Annie Laurie, which starred Lillian Gish.
The fine art of film accompaniment is a new one for Moishe’s Bagel as a band, although its fiddler Greg Lawson and bassist Mario Caribé have both been involved in playing live scores as individuals, says the sextet’s pianist, Phil Alexander, who describes the process as “an interesting challenge”.
Salt for Svanetia promotes Soviet measures to modernise the isolated Svan people of the Caucasus Mountains in north-west Georgia and is a dramatic example of socialist realism. “Visually it’s very striking,” says Alexander, “with all that Soviet iconography – bare-chested men wielding pick-axes and that sort of thing.”
Many of the band’s tunes are inherently cinematic, and in a quite manic way, conjuring up visions of a Balkanised Keystone Cops. Alexander agrees, but adds, “What’s interesting is that it’s not that kind of silent film; it’s a much starker piece of work, so while there are one or two tunes in there which have that manic thing, what we’ve done is explore our slightly darker side.
Instead of aiming for the “atmospherics” one might associate with a film score, Alexander reckons that “it’s much more appropriate for a band like us to create a lot of good melodic material and adapt it to the film, although there is more ‘atmosphere’ in the score than there would be in one of our albums. I suppose, too, that we were influenced by a kind of Soviet sound – there’s a sense of Prokofiev or Shostakovich in there.”
With help from Creative Scotland, the band plans to record the score and tour it – with the film – in the autumn.
For Neil Brand, doyen of silent film accompanist-composers and a guest at all five HippFests, the biggest challenge is “making the movie work for a modern audience. That doesn’t necessarily mean giving the film modern music, but the music does need to speak in a language a modern audience understands.”
Brand, a prolific writer and broadcaster whose show The Silent Pianist Speaks plays the Fringe, will combine his piano skills with the rockabilly and vintage blues sounds of the Dodge Brothers for an early western, Hell’s Hinges. Appropriately enough, the group boasts two professional cineastes, with film critic Mark Kermode on slap bass and harmonica and guitarist Michael Hammond, senior lecturer in film at Southampton University.
In his more customary role at the piano, Brand will don his tuxedo for the gala night showing of a gangster movie, Synthetic Sin. He also composes and plays scores for full orchestra – later this year the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra will perform his soundtrack for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1927 Blackmail – but while enthusing about “those sweeping, romantic, Hollywood-style melodies”, he loves the more intimate nature of the Bo’ness festival. “It’s become a major event on the calendar. Not only is there more interest in writing new scores for silent film, but there’s more funding for it, and Bo’ness has really benefitted from that.”
Also, as a self-confessed “steam railway nut”, he’s looking forward to playing that station platform gig: “It’s nice to be able to bring together two real passions of mine.”
For more, see hippfest.co.uk