Musicians rock out with silent films

Dengue Fever among indie bands providing soundtracks

Los Angeles-based indie rock band Dengue Fever has become adept at merging seemingly incompatible art forms, crafting music equally indebted to psychedelic rock and vintage Cambodian pop. And now they’ve added another incongruous element to their brew, as they prepare to bring their original score for 1925 silent film “The Lost World” to UCLA’s Royce Hall next month.

Yet in contrast to the sextet’s inimitable musical style, the latter venture sees Dengue Fever join a growing list of indie bands enlisted to compose and perform live scores for silent films, a trend that’s beginning to break beyond the few film festivals that first nurtured it.

“This is the longest piece of music I ever sat down and worked out,” said Dengue Fever guitarist and songwriter Zac Holtzman of his score. “Usually when you’re songwriting, it’s sort of sprinkled throughout your life. Luckily, this film was very inspirational.”

While Giorgio Moroder may have laid the foundation for rock musicians tackling deep-archival film scores with his 1984 “Metropolis” composition, it was Yo La Tengo that set the contemporary standard. Recruited in 2002 by Doug Jones, then a programmer at the San Francisco Intl. Film Festival, the trio composed a score for the underwater documentaries of Jean Painleve. A wild success, the score was later taken on tour, and a Criterion Collection DVD of the performance followed

“It’s a great opportunity for cross-polination,” Jones explained. “You get silent film fans who may not know the band, and you get fans of the band who may not know anything about silent film.” Jones soon after left San Francisco to program the Los Angeles Film Festival, where he revived the format with artists like Dean and Britta, Sparklehorse and Wu-Tang Clan shogun the RZA.

His successor at the San Francisco festival, Sean Uyehara, has done likewise. Commissioning a new score and performance for every year of his tenure, Uyehara has welcomed Superchunk, Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields and Pixies frontman Charles Thompson. (The latter also released a box set of his score, and on a tour with the Pixies last fall, opened every show with a screening of Luis Bunuel’s “Un Chien andalou” — clearly the experience was a fruitful one.)

The concept has also struck a nerve beyond the two festivals. Over the past year, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon scored a Charlie Chaplin short in New York, art-punk duo No Age performed to mostly dialogue-less kidpic “The Bear” at L.A.’s Silent Movie Theater, and Will Gregory and Adrian Utley (creative forces behind electro-rock luminaries Goldfrapp and Portishead, respectively) hit Britain with their score for Carl Theodor Dryer’s 1928 classic “The Passion of Joan of Arc.”

Uyehara admitted that there are potential pitfalls in the format, among them the reticence of many silent purists to accept bands into their often traditionalist milieu, and conversely, nervous rock musicians feeling compelled to mimic the styles of traditional scoring.

“These films weren’t (originally) presented in hallowed, sacred halls; they were presented in movie theaters where people were doing all sorts of things besides watching the movies,” he noted. “I don’t want (bands) to try to produce a score based on what they think a score is supposed to be. I tell them to produce a score that is an extension of their typical style. I don’t want them to censor themselves.”

To that effect, Uyehara said he encourages bands to include as many vocal parts as they would in their usual songwriting, even inviting famed lyricist John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats to score Swedish silent “Sir Arne’s Treasure” this coming December. Though he added that “making sure they don’t overwhelm the film with lyrics is one of the things that musicians are concerned about, and rightly so.” For Holtzman, this is considerably less of a problem, as Dengue Fever’s Cambodian-born frontwoman Chhom Nimol does not primarily sing in English.

“We used Nimol more as an instrument,” he said. “And the fact that she’s singing in Khmer, it helps people to not get caught up in the lyrics.”

Perhaps most importantly, the experience provides most of these bands with their first tastes of film scoring, which considering the dire state of album sale royalties — and the debut scores from indie icons Trent Reznor, James Murphy and Daft Punk out this year — could be a promising new career path.

“We would love to score more,” Holtzman said. “People have picked a lot of our songs for (film) placement, but getting to write something for a particular scene is a lot of fun, and I look forward to anytime someone wants us to do something like that again.”