Sunday, February 24, 2019

Metropolis (1927) with the Babylon Orchester Berlin - Live 2019.02.23 Kino Babylon, Berlin, Germany

Just over ten years ago I wrote my second film review and first soundtrack review of the Moroder version of Metropolis. I loved the film, although I criticized that version and particularly the soundtrack. I'd already seen the 2001 restored version, but the Argentinian footage that led to the 2010 restoration hadn't been found yet. Thanks to the wonderful Webster University Film Series, I saw that version shortly after moving to St. Louis for a second time, which ended up reuniting me with several old friends. The same film series had introduced me to another concept a few years earlier, before I'd even started this blog: silent films with live musical accompaniment. While a student at Webster, I'd caught a few examples of this. The most notable was Text of Light, which paired experimental musicians with experimental silent films. Yesterday, I saw these two threads unite.

Event: Metropolis (1927) with the Babylon Orchester Berlin
Venue: Kino Babylon
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 23 February 2019

The Kino Babylon is a 90-year-old theater, apparently the last venue built specifically for silent film screenings in Germany. It's beautiful and comfortable, and it features an orchestra pit and a cinema organ. The pit is now inhabited by the Babylon Orchester Berlin, supposedly the first silent film orchestra to be founded in the 21st century. For their first project, they chose Metropolis, appropriately filmed primarily in Berlin and neighboring Potsdam.

I'll refrain from going into great detail into the plot of Metropolis or the backstory of its restoration, as others have done it better than I ever could. Nonetheless, there are a few points I'd like to mention. The many rounds of editing done to the film after its poorly-received debut is frustrating to consider, and the effort to reconstruct it was long and torturous to a degree that perhaps no other film has ever required. What is fascinating to me is that one of the keys to putting the pieces back together again (and figuring out what is still missing) was the original score by Gottfried Huppertz.

My original impression of seeing the 2001 version of the film was that the plot was convoluted. Several characters and plot points had been almost completely removed from most edited versions, and even when those points were explained with title cards, it just didn't entirely make sense. The tempo and flow were also a mess. When I reviewed Moroder's version from 1984, I claimed that "most of plot essentials remain". But after seeing the 2010 version, that statement just doesn't hold up. Now that the film can be seen with almost all the original footage (and properly sequenced to boot), it's an entirely different experience. The plot is much more cohesive and there are fewer obvious holes. However, that doesn't mean that plot is particularly good. The confused combination of Marxism, expressionism, horror movie cliché, heavy-handed religious symbolism, anachronistic 1920s fashion, and sci-fi futurism doesn't always come together well. That said, it looks fantastic and I love the acting.

Seeing the movie with live orchestral accompaniment made the experience all the more engrossing. The emotional movement driven by the score was made substantially more dramatic. For most of the screening, I was so captivated that I ceased paying critical attention to the performance and just enjoyed and absorbed it. Since that happens to me so rarely, I can only credit the musicians with doing their job quite successfully. There were a few points at which the timing seemed just barely off, but considering the incongruities between the original score and the available film version, that's probably inevitable. The only other criticism was that the original cinema organ was out of commission and under repair, so we instead just got an electronic keyboard, which was a conspicuous downgrade. On the whole, though, the thrill of surging crescendos at the peak of the action and the percussive punches matching the characters' movements more than made up for it.

For the modern movie-goer, this event is certainly the most ideal environment for experiencing Metropolis in its full glory. The footage is probably about as good as it will ever get, the musicians are well-versed in the score, and the venue is a delight. What more could you want?

Score: A

P.S. It is pure coincidence that just last week I reviewed another film with a complicated backstory, Amazing Grace!

P.P.S. Thanks to Alyssa!

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Britta / Barbara Morgenstern / Mint Mind - Live 2019.02.18 Volksbühne, Berlin, Germany

I was only recently tuned into Barbara Morgenstern, and when I learned she'd be playing a show with Britta at a great venue in my neighborhood, I was sold. Britta, oddly enough, entered my awareness many years ago at the height of my Smiths fandom thanks to their delightful "Wie ein Smith-Song" [sic].

Artists: Britta / Barbara Morgenstern
Venue: Volksbühne
Location: Berlin, Germany
Date: 18 February 2019
Opening Act: Mint Mind

As if the co-headliners weren't enough, they still had an opening act: Mint Mind. Fronted by guitarist/vocalist Rick McPhail (perhaps better known as part of Tocotronic), they played a slightly scuzzy blend of old-school garage rock and punk. They reminded me a bit of 80s Sonic Youth but with less of a political angle. The lyrics I could follow were mostly about motorcycles and similar rock 'n' roll fare with only mildly wry deviations. I liked the vaguely psychedelic drone of the guitar fuzz, but I found it a bit odd that in lieu of a bassist, they had a second guitarist that almost exclusively played bass riffs. The cover of Billy Bragg's "A New England" was pleasant if unexciting, and the closing number was an amusing take on the Sesame Street tune "I Don't Want to Live on the Moon".

[Mint Mind.]

Barbara Morgenstern appeared on stage accompanied by Christian Biegai on baritone sax. She played a keyboard to the beat of a drum machine, but also added some effects, loops, and processing to build up the sound. (Biegai did some of the same as well.) She focused on songs from her latest album, Unschuld und Verwüstung, but whereas the studio recordings are heavily electronic and a bit cold, the live renditions felt a bit warmer and more human, perhaps closer to the sound of her earlier albums. This impression was emphasized by her animated and excited demeanor. I appreciated the lyrics I could understand and I liked the subtle (and occasionally unsubtle) touches that Beigai's bari sax added. Some of the instrumental passages went on a bit long, but Morgenstern's keyboard skills and vocals were impressive and well-matched with her electronic production.

[Barbara Morgenstern with Christian Biegai.]

I'm still not entirely sure what I like so much about Britta, but they strike some sort of chord that works for me. They're a bit simple and unrefined, yet they have a subtle charm. Their music is approachable and instantly familiar. Maybe I just like their style of social commentary. At any rate, they were a bit loose on stage, but they seemed to be having fun with it, and musically it still worked. Vocalist/guitarist Christiane Rösinger was humorous but unapologetic. Barbara Wagner mostly played rhythm guitar, which left enough room for Julie Miess' bass (and occasional keyboards) to fill a lot of harmonic space, and thankfully she was up to the task. The core trio was rounded out by the energetic and precise Sebastian Vogel on drums. They didn't offer "Wie ein Smith-Song", but of course they played their signature tune, "Lichtjahre voraus", which is still just as relevant today as it was in 2003. I didn't catch any new songs, but if this reunion is for real, I wonder where it will lead them. It might not be Rock am Ring or Rock am See, but I hope they stay an active unit.


Mint Mind: C+
Barbara Morgenstern: A-
Britta: B

P.S. Thanks to Jochen!

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Amazing Grace (2018)

One of the many joys of living in Berlin is being able to see films premiering at one of the most important film festivals of world, the Berlinale (officially the "Berlin International Film Festival"), with hardly any effort. However, if you stay clear of Potsdamer Platz (as most locals do), the festival is actually easy to overlook as a resident. That's what happened to me last year. This year, I almost suffered the same fate, but I at last came to my senses and managed to get tickets for Amazing Grace.

The backstory is already gripping without knowing much about the actual content. A young Sydney Pollack was given the opportunity to film a young Aretha Franklin at her commercial peak, recording a hugely successful gospel double album live in a baptist church in Los Angeles. However, he didn't do anything to note which cameras were recording which songs on which reel, and the effort of synchronizing the audio to the video was such a tedious and challenging chore that everyone involved gave up.

Sydney Pollack kept the idea alive, though, and right before he died in 2008, he passed the project over to Alan Elliott. Elliott, aided by modern computing, was finally able to get the synchronization job done, only to be blocked from releasing the film by Aretha Franklin herself. She was apparently upset about money, a missing contract, or permission, but after her death last year, her estate finally assented to the distribution of the film. Almost 47 years after the two nights of the performance, the film started making the festival rounds.

The film has almost the same running time as the original album (just under an hour and a half). There are no unreleased songs, almost no rehearsal footage, and very little in the way of framing the performances. The choir marches in in full silver-vested glory, the Reverend James Cleveland introduces Aretha, and about half of the songs from the first night at shown. It switches to the second night for the rest of the songs plus a scene introducing Clara Ward, who alternates between sitting awkwardly and dancing frantically, and Aretha's father, Reverend C.L. Franklin, who delivers a speech about Aretha's gospel roots.

Regardless of how one feels about gospel, the music is stirring, and Aretha's performance is stellar. She doesn't say a lot (Cleveland handles most of the hyping), and the only apparent emotion she shows is deep passion for the music. It is that very intensity that makes her entrancing. She plays piano on a couple songs and she does it without even looking or seeming to notice the effort; her voice doesn't even register the distraction. The rest of the band is similarly talented, although they are generally overwhelmed (or at least overshadowed) by the handclapping and vocals of Aretha and the powerful and enthusiastic Southern California Community Choir.

There is some irony that the weakest song of the set is the title track itself, "Amazing Grace". Aretha's version is overlong, melodramatic, and exaggerated. However, the rest of the material is great. Even for the non-religious, the lyrics are inspirational, and the impassioned spirituality of the performers and the highly responsive audience make the whole thing feel like an overdue celebration. It's easy to get carried along. Everyone appears to be having a good time. The audience is incredibly thrilled to be there and they show it.

I'll admit that I might not have sought out this movie if I hadn't stumbled across it on the Berlinale schedule and gotten taken in by the story. I'm glad I went, though; it was uplifting and insightful. I could've done without cameos by the Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts, and I would've appreciated some more footage of the rehearsals, but there wasn't much chaff in what did make the cut. It was a strong performance and a significant moment in musical history, so it's our luck that someone had the bright idea of filming it all.

Score: B+


P.S. Thanks to Alyssa!