Although I knew nothing about the silent film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, I had high expectations for this evening, all of which were piled on Stephin Merritt’s shoulders. His amazing ability to craft the perfect quirky pop song seemed well suited to the project: creating a live score to a silent film. This is a mainstay of the San Francisco International Film Festival, after last year’s The Lost World with Dengue Fever, and I’m very happy it is. It is a great opportunity for a songwriter/composer to showcase his song-craft and experiment, but composing almost 2 hours of music that will enhance someone else’s work? It’s a tall order for even the most talented and interesting songwriter.
The Castro Theater was chosen not only for its size, but also its organ. Stephin Merritt would only do the project there with the organ and organist David Hegarty, and the organ certainly was the show piece for much of the score. The “band” was rounded out with Daniel Handler on accordion and vocals (megaphone), Johnny Blood on tuba, and Stephin Merritt on Dewanatron and vocals (megaphone). It was an interesting sound that would have worked much better if the volume of the megaphones was more balanced, though it might have just been where I was sitting (front and center). I could barely hear Stephin Merritt, while Daniel Handler’s vocals were quite piercing. The dangers of live music not run through a PA!
The film began with what turned out to be the theme song “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”. The film is broken up into eight parts, and this theme was to repeat at the beginning of every one: “20,ooo leagues under the sea hand in hand we will go. And as long as you dwell there with me that’s all I need to know.” It matched Stephin Merritt’s style and created the innocently silly and sweet mood for the film. As the film continued, there was some nautically themed instrumental music while all the characters were introduced until possibly the silliest song of all, about how no dames are allowed at sea, was played while they showed life on the submarine.
The film progressed further into ludicrous-land with the introduction of a “native” woman living alone on an island, and the accompanying song “Mysterious Island” gave you permission to laugh and made for the highlight of the film for me. You had the crazy looking silent film actress posing around the screen in exaggerated gestures along with this sweet silly Stephin Merritt song. The whole sequence was so fun and charming. It was a while before another actual song came, as opposed to the instrumental score punctuated by occasional lines such as “help! help!” and “oh no!” mostly done in Daniel Handler’s falsetto. What turned out to be the last real song of the evening came at the halfway point with “Underwater Garden” when you get your first glimpse of the underwater footage the film was origninally known for.
As the plot in the film thickens I can only assume that Merritt decided not to distract from the action and kept the rest of the score instrumental, only punctuated by the occasional recurrence of a previous theme (Underwater Garden and Mysterious Island in particular). This may have been okay if the film wasn’t so ridiculous. In 1916 I’m sure it was enthralling to watch underwater reefs and men walking around on the ocean floor, but now it is just, in its best moments, comical, and in its worst, unbelievably boring. Honestly, I think all the instrumental bits would have been much more enjoyable to me if I had known more about the Dewanatron beforehand. There was a plethora of interesting sounds coming out of it, and it was well suited to the underwater/submarine themed film, but without prior knowledge, or even being able to see the instruments, it was hard to get excited, or understand where the strange sounds were coming from. So you were left with this odd, disjointed film to watch, distracting, in a way, from the odd, disjointed music.
Stephin Merrit is still a genius, and it was interesting to watch a silent film like that in its entirety, but my modern sensibilities and expectations for action and excitement made it a bit hard to sit through. I’m glad I went and will go again next year, no matter who scores the film, because the good moments were so much better than the boring ones. And now that my expectations are a little more realistic I’ll probably be pleasantly surprised.