“A man becomes a critic when he cannot be an artist”
Mike Shiner, Birdman (that’s me done for then)
I doubt there is a film more suited to the live soundtrack format than Birdman. `When Alejandro Inarritu recruited drummer Antonio Sanchez to provide the score for his 2014 dark comedy Birdman, he was looking for something spontaneous. The single tracking shot technique meant that every aspect of every scene stays in the film, with no space to breathe for cutaways. This edge of the seat aspect suits a jazz soundtrack and the simplicity of a percussion led approach even more so. When Sanchez performs the music live, he takes the opportunity to stretch out even more across a movie which actually feels like a large scale theatre production, with the camera unflinchingly following and circling the performers. There was no yielding to privacy, The emotional heart of the film was on display. It’s a compelling watch.
It’s easy for me to say that now. The first time I tried to watch the movie I gave up after the first fifteen minutes. I had it pinned as self-indulgent navel-gazing about the angst of being an actor. Stretching this out for two hours in a single shot didn’t float my boat.
The chance to see Sanchez performing live convinced me to give it another go. The Meridian Suite remains one of my favourite albums of recent years and I loved watching Sanchez play with Pat Metheny at the Barbican in 2017. I’m currently enjoying his latest albums. Lines In The Sand is the follow up to Meridian Suite with the Migration Band, offering more of the politically charged commentary on the Trump years (Mexican born Sanchez commented on the evening that as he now has his American citizenship he can get “arrested but not deported“). Channels of Energy is a big band treatment of Sanchez’s work by the German WDR band and provides another avenue for Sanchez to explore. The La Linea festival of Latin music at the Barbican seemed the perfect environment.
Sanchez explained before the show that director Inarritu had influenced his musical career in his former life as DJ he played a Pat Metheny track on his radio show. It convinced Sanchez to explore a world beyond the classic rock he was listening to in Mexico City. Roll on a few decades and Sanchez is Metheny’s drummer. Innaritu contacted him and explained that he was looking for him to score Birdman. The director wanted spontaneity though. Rather than have Sanchez write and perform over a version of the finished music, he sat opposite the drummer and read the script out loud for Sanchez to play over. He asked for the drumkit to be detuned and wanted a sloppier approach than the drummer usually delivered to reflect the damaged nature of the film’s main characters. This wasn’t to be finger-snapping strutting and cruising through Manhattan music. It was to be crashing off of the walls stuff as the cast’s lives unwound. In particular, Sanchez helped propel Michael Keaton’s character Riggan through the movie, the chaos emphasised as Riggan trashed his dressing room and charged around the backstage area of the Broadway theatre.
The premise is that Riggan had had a successful career as a superhero, the eponymous Birdman. Approaching sixty, he couldn’t don the lycra and wings anymore so was reinventing himself as the lead actor, writer and director of a Raymond Carver adaptation on Broadway. Much as in Mel Brooks’ The Producers, any acts of the frequent acts of self-sabotage seemed to add to the show’s success and Riggan’s mental burden.
Sanchez was set up to one side of the screen and improvised over the film as it played. Never intrusive, always adding rather detracting, it was a thrilling and unique way to watch the movie, which I ended up enjoying. I’m not sure I laughed much as Sanchez had observed earlier, the emphasis was on dark rather than comedy. When there were frequent passages in the film that didn’t require accompaniment, the drummer slipped off the stage and left the movie to play out without him.
The video clip below gives you a flavour for how things worked on the evening:
He came back to the stage for one last time and played over the credits and beyond, a solo that explored every element of his kit, including scraping of cymbals to dramatic effect.
Walking out of the Barbican, I was chatting to my friend Mark about how the drum solo was always the point to go for a toilet break when we were going to rock gigs when we were younger and here we are sitting through a whole evening of solo percussion. On reflection, I think Sanchez and Inarritu may have been the missing factors.