Zoya Azhar ’20
“BiRDMAN Live” at the University of Massachusetts Fine Arts Center was part of jazz drummer Antonio Sanchez’s “Birdman Live Scoring Tour.” Sanchez was the composer of choice for the dark comedy “Birdman,” directed by Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu. The event involved Sanchez performing the percussive sections of the film score as the movie was screened for audiences.
“Birdman” or “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance” is set in New York City at the St. James Theatre and follows washed-up Hollywood actor Riggan Thompson’s (Michael Keaton) efforts to direct and star in his own Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Riggan, whose career peaked when he played a masked superhero named Birdman, is seen contending with the idea of an honest performance.
Emma Stone plays Riggin’s daughter Sam, who has recently been released from rehab; Edward Norton plays Mike Shiner, a method actor whose creative choices add another layer of complexity to the idea of an honest performance, as he drives Riggan up the wall. The fact that Keaton and Norton were both portraying characters in the film who had suspiciously similar nuances to their real-life acting careers, was not lost on audiences. The implied references to Keaton’s “Batman” career and Norton’s falling out with Marvel Studios made it a very meta film.
The film was released in October 2014 and was nominated for nine Academy Awards, including Best Cinematography, Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture. Cast-members Michael Keaton, Edward Norton and Emma Stone were also nominated for their acting. It was a shame that the Academy did not deem the soundtrack original enough to be nominated in the Best Original Score category, stating the reason for this decision to be that the film contained “over a half an hour of non-original (mostly classical) music cues that are featured very prominently in numerous pivotal moments in the film.”
The soundtrack did however win the Grammy awarded for Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media, for which it was nominated along with scores from “The Imitation Game,” “Interstellar,” “The Theory of Everything” and “Whiplash.”
There were a handful of factors that made the film endlessly entertaining to watch, but in terms of presentation, the soundtrack was one of the more essential aspects. It punctuated the cinematography of the film, which appears to have been shot in one single take. The film sequences are full of the camera following characters around the theatre, creating a seamless and perfectly timed two-hour film. The score is made up of percussive jazz drumming and a handful of classical music snippets, the former being composed by Sanchez.
Sanchez, a Magna Cum Laude Berklee graduate in Jazz Studies, has an extensive and impressive discography to his credit. His musicianship is featured in over a hundred albums and he has performed with the likes of jazz artists Gary Burton, Michael Brecker and more.
Sanchez prefaced the event with a narration of how he got involved with “Birdman,” which started with a romantic tale of how he used to listen to a certain Mexican radio show in his youth and the radio-jockey just so happened to be Alejandro Iñárritu. Many years later, after receiving a cryptic phone call from Iñárritu, the two got together in the studio and the bare bones composition started to come together.
Iñárritu’s only direction was that the entire soundtrack would be drumming and that it should reflect the mood and tone of the film. He would read the script and Sanchez would play what he visualized the scene would play out to. Ultimately, Sanchez re-recorded the entirety of the score after filming was complete and this time, he had visual aid. It was particularly interesting that Iñárritu even went so far as to scrap some drumming samples because they sounded too good; he wanted the drums to fit the visual of the run-down theatre he was filming and to sound old and beat-up.
Following this, Sanchez settled into his seat at the drum-kit below the screen in the FAC’s Concert Hall and began to play. The music brought a distinctive sharpness to the presentation of the film; a crisp, ever-present backdrop that helped enunciate the restlessness and rhythm of the visuals. Scenes showing characters walking around the theatre, their movement accompanied by the precise percussion, were particularly enjoyable. I found myself torn between watching the film and watching Sanchez play. The cherry on top was the drum solo that Sanchez delivered at the end of the movie, as the credits rolled. It brought people to the edges of their seats as he delivered spaced-out hits on his cymbals, delaying the inevitable and finally ended with the entire hall jumping to their feet, applauding furiously.