Beer and Pavement

The Rats & People Motion Picture Orchestra

Posted in Film, Live by SM on June 26, 2011

This is a review I did for The Collective. Sorry for posting two of these in a row, but I just haven’t had the time for unique content. There’s a post coming regarding the best albums so far (not as long a list as you’d suspect, not really a list). I’ll probably do something on a brewery as well as those get the most traffic.

In the age of THX and 3D film, it’s hard to believe anyone would want to see a silent film made in 1925 Soviet Union, much less play music for said film. However, that’s exactly what The Rats & People Motion Picture Orchestra of St. Louis did Thursday night. On the screen was Sergei Eisenstein’s Strike, the story of a pre-revolutionary strike and violent suppression.

For the time period and lack of soundtrack or dialogue, Strike is a rather…well…striking film with fine performances, an impressive amount of action, and some interesting use of file footage of factories and slaughtered cattle. Silent film is often known for the appearance of over-acting. Not only did actors have to make up for the lack of audio dialogue, but the unusually fast pace of the film often gave the impression of hyperactivity. That said, the cast in Strike were incredibly engaging and convincing in their roles. Several scenes were rather exciting and included some intense physical acting not seen in today’s film as stunt men and CGI tend to suck the life from today’s films. Eisenstein expertly mixed in footage of factories and slaughtered cattle to demonstrate both the hard working conditions of the early industrial age as well as the savagery of union busting in Russia prior to Soviet takeover. All in all, Strike is a film well-deserving of revisiting even 85 years later, especially in light of all the labor disputes of our own time.

Considering all of that, Strike still would have been severely lacking in context and drama had The Rats & People not played the soundtrack. Where dialogue was missing or could not be adequately translated in subtitles, the orchestra filled this void with an expertly composed and emotionally performed piece that rivals the best soundtracks of today. In fact, where a soundtrack for a modern film only has to suggest pace and urgency, performing an original piece for a silent film has to do so much more. The composer’s challenge is to write music that tells the story where the images leave us wanting more. The musicians’ purpose is to convey emotion and exigency only through the squeals of their strings, thunder of percussion, and the bass’ groove. The Rats & People do all of this extremely well.

Although the film is unavoidably dated, the themes and drama are pertinent to our times and the orchestra’s performance went a long way in making that apparent. Although much of the instrumentation comes off as classical, a close listen reveals something more post-rock like Louisville’s Rachel’s. Like Rachel’s, The Rats & People apply a punk sensibility to chamber music, understanding the impact images have on the live performance and work within that environment to make some pretty amazing art. All this was achieved in about 80 minutes Thursday in the big theater at Ragtag.

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