The sound of silents
The Phantom of the Moulin Rouge
The Phantom of the Moulin Rouge, a rarely seen, black and white, silent film from 1925 directed by French director Rene Clair, tells the story of a man rejected by his lover. In his anguish, the man, Julien Boissel, meets a psychologist who hypnotizes him, releasing his astral body from his physical one. Boissel so enjoys his newfound freedom that he loses track of time, and, while his astral self runs around Paris, his seemingly lifeless body is discovered in the doctor’s chambers. The doctor is arrested for murder while authorities plan an autopsy to determine the cause of death. Boissel must find a way to get back into his body before he meets an untimely end.
This rediscovered film will be showing at Studio on 4th at 7 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 18, courtesy of the Great Basin Film Society (GBFS)—with a new live soundtrack.
Steven Savage, founder of GBFS, had tried presenting live piano accompaniment to silent movies in the past but wasn’t fully satisfied with the result. When he decided to show The Phantom of the Moulin Rouge, he approached Larry Elliott, a local musician and composer, about doing a live score.
Calling it a live score doesn’t exactly explain what Elliot and his team have in store for opening night.
Right away, when Elliott watched the movie for the first time, he came up with the idea to improvise gibberish.
“Unlike most silent movies where the piano rambles on and on, this will be an interesting, 68-minute experiment in music, electric sound effects, real-time crowd noises, and spoken French gibberish,” explains Elliott.
In the film, the screen actor’s lips move, and the live actors will deliver dialogue in “French” just before the English subtitles appear on the screen. Elliott, who has been a musician and entertainer for years—he even had a scene with Alec Baldwin in the movie The Cooler—will play keyboards with some sound effects and a bare minimum of prerecorded music. Everything else will be done live, including guitar.
“We do this thing called additional dialogue recording. This will be more like a jazz jam session, happening very quickly in the moment,” says Elliott. His crew of a handful of people will use noisemakers and whistles, and they’ll make sound effects with their voices, as well as creating the dialogue for the film.
“It’s voice acting—like you might hear on the old radio theater—theater of the mind,” says Elliott.
The experience of this performance will be more like going to a play than watching a movie. The projection screen will be in the middle of the stage, and the players will be off to the left and right so the audience will be able to see them. As director—he uses the term lightly—Elliott has instructed the actors to move and play the part.
“The physical body will always influence the sound of your voice,” says Elliott. “We are incorporating a live performance into a silent movie.”
This is a one-time event. In the long term, though, Elliott hopes to present this at other venues. Each performance, because it is done live and in the moment, will be slightly different.
“This project is like time travel,” says Elliott. “We will hook up with cast, crew and director of this 90-year-old movie and try to make it live like it never did before.”