Who wouldn’t be intrigued by the idea of a member of Scissor Sisters writing a synth score for a silent film about dinosaurs? John Garden is taking The Lost World (1925) on a UK tour – and I reviewed the first show, at the Barbican in London, for the Spectator Arts Blog.
Synthesisers and Arthur Conan Doyle may seem an unlikely combination, but if the BBC can give Sherlock Holmes a 21st-century makeover, then an electronic score for a silent film of his novel The Lost World might just work too.
Conan Doyle’s novel was published in 1912, and this blockbuster movie adaptation was made just 13 years later, in Hollywood, with a cast of stars and cutting-edge special-effects. The stop-motion movement of the dinosaurs in The Lost World (1925) may look familiar – they’re the work of Willis O’Brien, who went on to animate King Kong in 1933.
His dinosaurs are uncannily lifelike, and they’re the magic ingredient that turns this action comedy such a spectacular crowd-pleaser. We first encounter the dinosaurs when a team of hardy scientists, and a hapless journalist, accompany the winsome Paula White on a trip to rescue her explorer father from an obscure jungle plateau. The film is just as famous, though, for its brilliant climax, which has more than a little in common with King Kong’s closer – but this time set in London.
So The Lost World is ripe to be embraced by a 2011 audience, and that’s where the new hi-tech score comes in. The composer, and performer, of the new music is John ‘JJ’ Garden, best known for his work with pop band Scissor Sisters. Disco-dancing dinosaurs? Whatever would Conan Doyle think?
The truth is, this is a strange combination. Garden says that the fun and excitement of The Lost World put him in mind of the films he watched as a boy, and therefore he drew inspiration from sci-fi- movie soundtracks of the early 1980s – glacial electronica by Vangelis and Moroder.
But there’s very little that’s futuristic about this tale of Edwardian explorers and prehistoric monsters. And, while the special effects are still impressive, they have nothing of the digital sheen today’s CGI wizardry. Yet somehow, for the most part, this synth-heavy score really makes sense.
I couldn’t quite get used to the glossy synth sound during the scenes in London or the quieter moments in the jungle, but Garden is in his element with the slapstick comedy, underlining the humour with boisterous keyboard work. The audience at the Barbican on Sunday were hooting with glee as Wallace Beery’s mad-eyed Professor Challenger wrestled our reporter hero (Lloyd Hughes) to the ground and tumbled with him out of his front door and down some steps.
By the time the two of them were tussling on the pavement, having swept a passing policeman into the grapple, Garden had us in the palm of his hand. And all his electronic firepower was put to good use creating a pulsating beat for the action sequences, such as when our brave heroes try to outrun a volcanic eruption, a crowd of marauding dinosaurs and an evil chimpanzee – all at once.
The Scissor Sisters fans get their hi-NRG moment too, in a burst, as Challenger’s ship zooms its way at a comically fast pace across a world map to South America. It’s a lovely moment: a musical gag to match the film’s own joke. Garden’s bravura touch, though, is his use of an electric guitar to give voice to the dinosaurs. He has conquered a rare skill: to play a chord, and distort it, to mimic the roar of a prowling T-rex or the wail of a wounded stegosaurus, giving the fight scenes real teeth. With these rock ’n’ roll flourishes, Garden’s electronic music brings this analogue film gloriously back to life.
The Lost World with live score by John Garden is on tour, playing the Phoenix in Exeter on 13th October, Turner Sims in Southampton on 14th October, the Cornerhouse in Manchester on 16th October and returning to London for a show at the Natural History Museum on 21st October. For more details, visit http://www.bristolsilents.org.uk or http://johngarden.net
Pamela Hutchinson blogs at SilentLondon.co.uk