Pulse” takes the STOMP franchise on the road with a vengeance in a giant-screen musical travelogue that showcases percussion specialists from all over the globe in their natural habitats — from a hardhat, gum boot-clad dance troupe strutting their stuff on a mining platform in Johannesburg to an Indian drummer vocalizing an ancient Hindi version of scat in Calcutta. The impact is greatly lessened by a theatrical visual vocabulary combined with indifferent lensing, but the sameness of presentation may prove a welcome didactic tool for kids in museum settings where pic is skedded (premiering at N.Y.’s Museum of Natural History, then slated for similar institutions in major U.S. cities).
Envisioning the film as an opportunity to do things that can’t be done on stage, first-time helmers (and STOMP creators) Steve McNicholas and Luke Cresswell often think BIG. Thus pic opens with a multi-story tenement facade — that looks exactly like a huge theater set — with various STOMP troupers opening windows and joining in an “impromptu” jam session with their hallmark makeshift instruments.
A religious ceremony in Kerala, India, is recreated with rows of richly caparisoned elephants, trumpeters and drummers. A carnival in Salvador, Brazil, features a 200-piece drum orchestra with drummers sporting red and yellow top hats. The 14 great bells of Winchester Cathedral loom impressively accompanied by a vast circle of bell-ringers tolling complex variations on the diatonic scale.
An NYC-set sequence typifies pic’s vastness: Two uniformed marching bands, one traditional, one funky, start out from opposite ends of the Brooklyn Bridge, the camera then picking up the meeting point in a swooping 360-degree helicopter shot.
STOMP underwater, on the other hand, underwhelms, the unfocused gyrations of its players detracting from whatever muted sound play they’re experimenting with.
Far too often, the camera movements (usually left-to-right pans and overheads, followed by a final, summing-up long-shot) seem at odds, rhythmically, with the choreography. Les Percussions de Guinee, for instance, has a well worked-out routine that emphasizes jazz-like exchanges between musicians, but their by-play is undercut by implacable pans and irrelevant focal distances.
Ironically, pic winds up proving the axiom that “less is more” — the smaller the ensemble, the more successfully its internal rhythm is conveyed on film. The magnificent Spanish dancer Eva Yerbabuena, performing with a few instrumentalists on a bare rooftop in Spain’s Alhambra, provides pic’s showstopper, her sinuous, slow-building Flamenco exploding in dazzling, perfectly modulated crescendos of staccato-footed mastery.
The Koto drummers of Japan’s Sado Island provide another other dramatic highpoint, as the camera for once sits still for some length of time, moving only for dramatic revelation.
Docu eschews all narration, but Keith Middleton, the “Wild Child” of STOMP, acts as visual emcee, appearing on the back of an elephant or in an oft-reprised segment showing a quartet of STOMPers “playing” their bicycles as they pedal along. He also kicks off a montage of extreme close-ups on very ethnically differentiated faces against a dead black backdrop, each sampled head emitting a different sound (affording one of docu’s few instances of humor).