The Artist: the not-so-silent silent film

Elizabeth Davis takes a closer look at the role of music in early films

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Michel Hazanavicius’s new film The Artist has been hailed as a homage to the silent film, a love song to the motion picture when it was simply that. It’s been tipped for Oscars and is selling out at cinemas across the country. But, of course, it’s not silent at all: there’s music.

Early on in the film we’re shown a movie theatre (and I mean theatre) of the 1920s and there, in front of the big screen, stage and velour curtain, is a full orchestra (you can just see the clarinettist and conductor in the picture above). The Artist follows the fortunes of a silent movie actor, George Valentin, who is unable to adapt to the new ‘talkies’. But the film also seeks to draw attention to a style of acting and film production that was lost in our hunger for technological advancement.

Watching the film it became clear that with the shift from movies to talkies we lost not only a style of acting and a particular kind of comedy, but also a way of listening to music.

For the first cinema audiences live music – played by an orchestra or pianist – filled the void left by people’s voices. Music had to take on the role of words in setting the scene, conveying emotion and even explaining plot. In other words the music wasn’t mere background but as vital a part of the film as the central character.

Ludovic Bource’s score for The Artist – performed by the Brussels Philharmonic and conducted by Ernst Van Tiel – draws on jazz, waltz, classical music and other film scores and manages to recreate for a modern audience something of the role music must have once played for movie-goers of the 1920s. Sadly, though, film theatres nowadays aren’t built to accommodate an orchestra – so we can only get a taste of what going to the movies might have been like in the early 20th century from The Artist.

But the value of those soundtracks, performed live by an orchestra, is perhaps being recognised – albeit belatedly. The Southbank Centre is next month screening Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s 1926 silent film, Faust, with a live orchestral accompaniment. Composer Aphrodite Raickopoulou has written a new score to be performed by the Philharmonia Orchestra with piano improvisation from Gabriela Montero.

So a form that was out of fashion for decades seems to be making a return. Silent films and the music that played such a vital part in them, The Artist suggests, shouldn’t be dismissed simply because technology has changed. Art isn’t as black and white and that.

Elizabeth Davis is the editorial assistant of BBC Music Magazine

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