SFIFF Review: Thao & The Get Down Stay Down at The Castro Theater, 4/29/14

by Dakin Hardwick on May 2, 2014

Photo Courtesy of Pam Gentile and the San Francisco Film Society

Photo Courtesy of Pam Gentile and the San Francisco Film Society

The San Francisco International Film Festival has some people on staff with some impeccable taste in music. Since 2000, with their first pairing of Television’s Tom Verlaine with a series of short films from the 1920’s, they’ve chosen some pretty amazing pairings of rock musicians and silent films. At tonight’s event, we got to experience local folk rock heroine Thao Nguyen, accompanied by her long time back up band The Get Down Stay Down and a slew of classic and contemporary films for what amounted to a multimedia variety show that was unlike anything else I’ve seen.

Thao opened with “Holy Roller,” a bluesy stomp from last year’s practically perfect We The Common. This song is heavily influenced by the recordings founded by noted ethnomusicologist Harry Smith. So, in tribute, the song was accompanied by an animation made by the aforementioned Smith. The performance was in the spirit of 60’s psych shows with a liquid light show, only with one of the largest screens ever.

The second film piece of the evening was a vintage workout film from the 20’s called “Torture de Luxe.” The film would’ve been hysterical on it’s own, watching two women use some very strange and scary looking devices that used pullies and electrical shock to tone muscles. The song selection was Thao’s “Body,” with the rousing chorus of “What am I? Just a body in your bed?” made a song about an ignored lover turn into a cute song about motivating oneself to start working out. The song was a a bit shorter than the film, so instead of stretching the piece out, she went into another song about the human form, “When We Swam,” as sort of a cool down from our workout.

In between classic films, we got a series of short “talkies” from 2013 made by Lauren Tabak. These were digital shorts starring Thao Nguyen that were filmed to help promote her latest album. However, they didn’t feel like commercials. Mostly because Thao is one of the funniest people in music. The first one was a piece where she read a negative review of her newest album, so she went to the writers’ apartment, and tortured the writer (a 7th grade boy) with her banjo until he apologized. The second one was a funny video about training for a world tour. The third one was about giving up on music. The three shorts, plus many more, can be found here. Sure, your computer is probably not as nice a room as The Castro Theater, but if you don’t have a time machine, it’s pretty much your only option for viewing them.

There were two major films that were screened. The first one was “The Life & Death Of 9413, a Hollywood Extra.” This was a chilling dark comedy from 1928 about the life of a Hollywood extra. It opened with the actor’s first audition, and ended with his death. Along the way, we saw the ups and downs of being the least appreciated person on the set of a film. This was a captivating body of work, and Thao’s music was the perfect balance. Despite using prexisting works with lyrics, the selections only complimented the narrative, as opposed to overpowering it.

In addition to the Thao shorts, we also got a couple classic newsreels. The first one was from the beginning of the great depression, and two men are having dinner, discussing the economy. One man ordered a steak, the other ordered milk and crackers. Both are wealthy men, and one man convinced the other man that the only way they can save the economy is by spending, not being frugal. The video ended with both of them enjoying a steak. It was reminiscent of the post 9/11 “Shop For America” movement. Kind of crazy how history repeats itself.  The second one, also from the depression, was an interview with a woman that was selling her hand in marriage for $10,000 to help save her family’s farm.

For the funniest portion of our show, we were treated to a vintage beauty contest film. Only the film, from 1928, was specifically looking at one body part. It was a sexiest back contest! Not booty, but actual back. Prompting the only cover of the evening, with Thao switching up the lyrics to Sir Mix A Lot’s “Baby Got Back” as a song about actual backs. Sexy, sexy backs. I was in tears, laughing. Thao ended the song by announcing that she can retire now.

The final film was a Charlie Chaplin comedy from 1918 called “The Pawn Shop.” I’ve never seen a Chaplin film before. Which is terrible, since I grew up in Union City, the town next to the city of Fremont, where most of the early Chaplin films were made. It was a film where he played his Little Tramp character, and it was funny. Thao’s percussionist acted as foley artist, punctuating each pratfall with an appropriate effect, utilizing various different drums and toys to create the sound of a ladder falling, or a man slipping, and even a gun getting kicked out of somebody’s hand.

It was a great evening out. So good that I feel terrible that this was a one time only deal. If she could tour this, it would be amazing.

Setlist:

Holy Roller – Early Abstractions 2: Message From the Sun (USA: Harry Smith, 1946-48) video

Body – Torture de Luxe (USA: Ray Foster, c. 1926) 35mm

When We Swam

The Day Long – Life and Death of 9413, a Hollywood Extra (USA: Robert Florey & Slavko Vorkapich, 1928) 35mm

City

The Feeling Kind

Listen to Some Words of Wisdom (USA: Hearst Metrotone News, 1930) video

Kindness Be Conceived – Early Abstractions 3: Interwoven (USA: Harry Smith, 1947-49) video

Offers Herself as Bride For $10,000 (USA: Hearst Metrotone News, 1931) video

Baby Got Back – Charming Display at Perfect Back Contest (USA: Hearst, 1928) 35mm

Every Body – The Pawn Shop (USA: Charlie Chaplin, 1916) 35mm

Beat (Health, Life, and Fire)

Cool Yourself

We The Common

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