The incidence of screening films along with live musical performances—onstage or in an orchestra pit—is nothing new. But there have been some inventive twists in recent years, as with Bill Frisell’s Buster Keaton scores.
What gave special distinction to the screening and performance at UCLA’s Royce Hall on Feb. 16 had partly to do with the musical equipment onstage—a single, large drum kit. Welcome to the world of “BiRDMAN LiVE,” in which Antonio Sánchez played his unique, drum-based film score to the fascinating 2014 Birdman, which was written and directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu.
In this case, the live screening and performance served to illustrate—in real, real-time—ways the synchronicity of the film and music in this project address the volatility, ecstasy and agony of making art. In this wild-style tale with debts to Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2, a former superhero character (Michael Keaton) is grappling with his waning sense of artistic self by putting on an adaptation of a Raymond Carver story in a historic Broadway theater while facing internal and external doubts and demons.
Sánchez came onstage at the acoustically friendly Royce Hall and gushed, “I am the only drummer in the world who gets to play on this stage by themselves.”
He explained to the crowd the circuitous story of his Birdman gig, reaching back to when he was a music-hungry kid, listening to a Mexico City radio station where a DJ—Iñárritu, it turned out—played work by the Pat Metheny Group years before the drummer moved to New York and became an ally to the guitarist for multiple projects.
Sánchez and Iñárritu became acquainted in the U.S., and the director (known for stretching artistic boundaries, starting with his Amores Perros in 2000 and more recently in 2016’s The Revenant) called the drummer up one day with the novel idea of hiring him to score his next film—using only drums. In the end, it was a radical but brilliant call, and the flexible and compositionally inclined Sánchez was precisely the person for the job.
Ironically, Sánchez’s ground-breaking drum-centric score wasn’t eligible for an Oscar nomination due to technicalities. But the film went on to win four Oscars, including Best Film. The drummer, though, received a bit of vindication when he won a Grammy for the soundtrack.
Although the film uses musical cues and colorations sparingly, Sánchez’s drum parts took on important roles when they did appear. Sánchez’s approach to the live context mostly was structured around the original score, with some space for the kind of improvisation that initially informed the composition.
Drum grooves lent lean tension and a pulse to certain scenes, while looser atmospheric work on the drum kit expanded the complexity of particular emotional content on screen. Rumbling toms punctuated a scene in which actors played by Keaton and Edward Norton are carrying on a heated, syncopated discussion.
Viewer’s pent-up desire to hear Sánchez fully in his element was satisfied when he launched into a 20-minute solo over the film’s end credits, which extended into an invigorating music-for-music’s-sake postlude. Here, listeners got a hearty taste of Sánchez’s musicality as a drummer, one whose solos can seem imbued with compositional and melodic logic—working on motifs and following ideas—while also displaying measured bursts of rhythmic intrigue and intensity that inspired shouts from the audience. He ended with the gentle sound of scraping a cymbal, like a fade to sonic black.
On the following night, at a new-ish downtown L.A. spot, Ace Hotel, Sánchez was more in his traditional element. Here, he was performing music from his album The Meridian Suite with his group Migration, sans screens or movie stars in the picture. DB