Why bands are using film footage for live gigs

Increasingly, bands and directors are using archival film footage as the basis for live audio-visual events. Alistair Harkness asks why

Film still from 'How we used to live' by Paul Kelly
Film still from 'How we used to live' by Paul Kelly

At a time when Hollywood continues to strip-mine the past with endless remakes, reboots and belated sequels to decades-old movies, a more imaginative way of repurposing old films into event cinema has sprung up in recent years. Hours of footage from national film archives are being given new leases of life by directors and bands working in collaboration with each other to craft archival collages with modern scores that can be performed live as audio/visual gigs.

At Glasgow Film Theatre this Tuesday, for instance, electro pop pioneers Saint Etienne will perform their wistful score to regular collaborator Paul Kelly’s archival meditation on post-war London, How We Used to Live. This follows British Sea Power’s performance of their soundtrack to Penny Woolcock’s BFI-sourced coastal history From the Sea to the Land Beyond, which made its Scottish debut at the Glasgow Film Festival back in February. And, after triumphant performances at the Commonwealth Games Culture Festival, the Barbican and Celtic Connections, there’s another chance to see From Scotland with Love in August when Fife-based musician Kenny ‘King Creosote’ Anderson performs his score for Virginia Heath’s poetic archive-sourced history of the nation live in Edinburgh and Glasgow.

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These film and music collaborations – and there are others too, such as Martin Wallace and Pulp front-man Jarvis Cocker’s archival mash-up The Big Melt: How Steel Made Us Hard – have intriguing relationships with the past. Very often culled from government funded public information films designed to promote Britain to the world, they can unlock the times depicted in those films, critiquing or celebrating them by mashing up footage in thematically resonant ways.

From Scotland With Love

“A lot of the footage we used was created during the early days of the welfare state,” says Kelly of How We Used to Live. “So we decided to use footage from the 1950s to when Thatcher comes in and starts dismantling it.”

For Heath, who spent three months trawling through the National Library of Scotland’s archives as she began work on From Scotland With Love, the idea was to create something in which audiences could take a more active role in constructing the film’s meaning through themes like immigration, community or the decline of heavy industry. “It gives the audience a chance to explore the past in a very reflective way and think about it in relation to where we are today.”

But why are these films emerging now? Saint Etienne’s Pete Wiggs, who composed the score for How We Used to Live, thinks some of it is simply down to organisations such as the BFI wanting to get the footage out there in interesting ways. Heath, meanwhile, thinks that audiences are responding because these films “cut against the grain of the fast culture we live in.”

Though From the Sea to the Land Beyond (2012) was the first of this mini wave (much to the chagrin of Kelly, who’d pitched How We Used to Live to the BFI before that, but couldn’t get funding to make it), other precedents exist. Heath cites the pioneering work of New York-based artist and filmmaker Bill Morrison (Decasia, The Miners’ Hymns, The Great Flood). Kelly and Wiggs, meanwhile, were both entranced by Terrence Davies’ 2008 documentary Of Time and the City, which told a very personalised history of Davies’s native Liverpool using footage drawn entirely from newsreels and documentaries. “We’d done three London films,” Kelly says, referring to his other Saint Etienne live audio/visual collaborations Finisterre (2003), What Have You Done Today Mervyn Day? (2005) and This is Tomorrow (2008), “and although we didn’t plan to do another one, after seeing Time and the City, the idea of doing something with archives and doing the soundtrack seemed quite appealing.”

Both Kelly and Wiggs and Heath and Anderson collaborated closely on the music while crafting the footage for their respective films. “There was a lot of back-and-forth,” Wiggs says. “I’d send Paul bits of music before he’d edited anything, then he’d cut a few things and send it back and gradually we just started pulling stuff together. A lot of the music on the soundtracks for the original films are quite jaunty, because they’re designed to sell an idea of Britain, but I wanted to bring out more emotion, or different emotions with the music.”

From Scotland With Love’s soundtrack is song-based, so Anderson’s lyrics perform more of a narrative function, providing characters and alter egos that personalise the songs, but evoke emotions that either enhance what’s happening on screen or provide interesting counterpoints. “I’d show him sequences early on and the first ideas for the words were literally him sitting with his guitar writing lyrics and me saying, ‘that sounds great, let’s work on that,’” says Heath. “I think that’s why the album and the film really fit like a glove. But to see how the album was all put together, and then to have it all broken down again in a live performance was really exciting.”

Indeed it’s in the live setting that these types of films really come into their own, their themes – which frequently revolve around community – enhanced by the collective experience of watching the film in a room full of people, but also from having the added frisson of unpredictability that a gig setting confers upon it. “Your job as a director is to shape the whole vision of the film and make sure all the elements work to further that vision and communicate with an audience,” explains Heath, “but then, suddenly, there’s a whole crucial element that’s not in your control, which is really exciting.”

Kelly had a similar experience watching How We Used to Live for the first time with Saint Etienne performing the score. “Obviously if you’re watching something in a cinema you have a captive audience, but I think it’s amplified by the band playing live. I can watch it from 
an outside perspective and almost see the film for the first time that way.”

Needless to say, these live performances are more complicated than simply having a band play in front of a screen. To help bring the people in From Scotland with Love to life, Heath worked with sound designer David McAuley to incorporate some of the ambience of daily life into the soundtrack. “When we do the live performance it’s a mix of the music plus the sound design coming off the film, which is quite technically complicated, but it creates this immersive experience.”

By contrast, How We Used to Live was not actually conceived as a live event. That only came about when the Sheffield Doc/Fest asked Kelly and Saint Etienne if they could do it as a gig. “Pete did all the music himself so we had to deconstruct that, but I actually think it worked better that way. If we ever did this again, I wouldn’t even think of how the show would work and just let the musicians worry about that.”

Does Wiggs feel the same way? “I think after the last one we said never again. But actually the transition worked quite well.

“But it’s very different from doing a gig,” he adds, with a laugh. “People tend not to clap between the different bits, so you can easily sit there thinking they hate it.”

Saint Etienne: How We Used to Live, Glasgow Film Theatre, 19 May, for tickets visit www.glasgowfilm.org

From Scotland With Love with live performance from King Creosote screens at Kelvingrove Bandstand 6 August, www.ticketmaster.co.uk and at The Hub, Edinburgh, 14-15 August, www.eif.co.uk