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February 28, 2012

Silence Is Golden Once More

By Spear's

The Oscars triumph of The Artist proves that the power of silence is undiminished. So what is it that explains our recent rash of silent films with live musical accompaniments, asks Melinda Hughes

The Oscars triumph of The Artist proves that the power of silence is undiminished. So what is it that explains our recent rash of silent films with live musical accompaniments, asks Melinda Hughes
up no fewer than seven Baftas and five Oscars with a little-known Frenchman in the lead. This inspiring win just proves that anything is possible and I, like so many, was totally charmed by the film and only hope the trend in less conventional films having such success continues after being bombarded with over-produced action films, tenuous plot lines and inferior scripts.

I can’t help but notice the recent trend of silent movie screenings with live music across London and I have always been an advocate of this period: specialising in the music of Berlin cabaret composer Mischa Spoliansky, my own cabaret group Kiss & Tell writes satirical songs very much influenced by the Thirties. While there is political and financial unrest, art and music are historically more expressive, prolific, contorted and controversial. But where is the silence (and the music) coming from?

Watch Melinda Hughes perform ‘Just a Regular Mister Again’

We are having a love affair with the Twenties and Thirties, that’s for sure. Film and fashion throw up images of Marlene Dietrich, Wallis Simpson and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Indeed Gucci’s latest iridescent block of flapper style dresses for Autumn/Winter 2012 are a huge hit and near my house speakeasy-themed parties serving absinthe cocktails are all the rage. Films such as WE, The Artist and Midnight in Paris all celebrate the glamour and nostalgia of this elegant yet subversive era. Perhaps when our comfort or financial stability is threatened, we have a desperate need for glamour and heady escapes.

The British Film Institute has been screening silent films for years, yet my first foray into this genre was a screening of Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last (1923) at the Chelsea Arts Club in January. This film (which sees Lloyd dangling from a clock face) was accompanied by the multi-talented Stephen Horne on piano, accordion and flute. Horne who has a residency at the BFI, performs at film festivals all over the world. (He also writes screenplays and has had his short Fatherspace shown on Channel 4.)

Watch Harold Lloyd in Safety Last
Last November the Barbican screened a very successful European premiere of Louis about Louis Armstrong for the London Jazz Festival, complete with a live score by Wynton Marsalis and only a few weeks ago I attended Charlie Barber’s staging of Charles Bryant’s 1923 film Salomé, based on the Oscar Wilde play, at Southbank’s Purcell Room backed by impressive live percussion. It was another wondrous affair and a sell-out success.

Barber’s company Sound Affairs produces a myriad of recordings, tours and performances in this genre, commissioning new music often juxtaposed with vintage cinema or digital projections. At the Salome screening, a large screen was encased by industrial scaffolding, which housed four dramatically lit percussionists. The room had been perfumed by the heady scent of frankincense and the sound of distant Middle Eastern mugham played before as the audience entered to prepare them for the journey back to Biblical times.

Sound Affairs isn’t simply a screening, it’s an experience and this film, starring Alla Nazimova, was a trip, with its highly stylised costumes by Natacha Rambova, its dramatic plot and its striking homoerotic images. Salomé is touring round the country this spring so do catch it if you can. Meanwhile on 27th February Hugh Grant introduced a special screening of Faust at the South Bank with live orchestral accompaniment by the Philarmonia Orchestra, the pianist Gabriela Montero, conducted by Benjamin Wallfish, which also proved to be another hugely popular event.

Watch the trailer for Salome with score by Sound Affairs
During the Seventies – another great time of political unrest (particularly in America) – films such as Cabaret, All That Jazz and Funny Girl were huge hits. In fact Cabaret won no less than eight Academy Awards so you can bet ya bottom dollar the recession is the link here – or perhaps it’s just a timely revival as the great wheel of fashion turns.

Hollywood does like to jump on the bandwagon, of course, and as soon as one studio gets wind of a certain film in production (particularly a company like the Weinsteins’), before you know it there’s a whole spate of copycat movies. Already there are films in post-production such as Silent Life, a film about Valentino, and Wilde Salome, directed and written by Al Pacino. I also hear that a new musical about Charlie Chaplin is set to open on Broadway, so grab your top hat because we’re going back in time. I feel right at home.

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