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Some things are easier said than done.
When filmmaker Sylvain Chomet, for instance, went to see Stomp in Montreal, he instructed composer Benoit Charest to try and incorporate some of that show’s approach to music in the soundtrack he was creating for his animated film, The Triplets of Belleville. Stomp featured musicians frantically “playing” several found objects, banging away on push brooms, wooden poles, garbage cans, inner tubes – even a kitchen sink – to produce a rhythmic backdrop.
Chomet was quite taken with the production and thought something similar could be employed for his story that, among other things, involved three sisters from the vaudeville stage.
“He saw Stomp and said, ‘Oh, you should do a thing where the old ladies play with house appliances,’” says Charest, in an interview with Postmedia from Montreal. “I said, ‘OK … that’s great.’ And he said, ‘Well, that’s your job, now.’”
The film features the titular triplets, who are enlisted to help elderly Frenchwoman Madame Souza track down her kidnapped professional cyclist grandson Champion. The old vaudevillians have taken to playing music on household items, which included rustling newspapers, plucking away at metal refrigerator racks and playing a vacuum cleaner, which results in one of the film’s many famous scenes.
“I had a Hoover at the studio and I beat it up,” Charest says. “I threw it around and tried to make sound out of it and I found a way to play it basically after trying many different things. I came up with this way of playing it almost like a horn, using my fingers as a reed basically. I sampled fridge parts in my studio and started working with that. So, the initial idea was Sylvain’s, but I brought it to life.”
That was how it tended to go when the classic film was being created: A specific set of instructions and then some trial-and-error experimenting to get it done.
“Most of the ideas came from Sylvain,” Charest says. “But he threw the ideas at me and said, ‘Well, try and do something with that.’”
It’s been 20 years since Chomet’s animated film became a worldwide sensation, whisking viewers back to 1920s Paris in an anti-Disney animated film. It became the first PG-13 film to be nominated for a Best Animated Film Oscar – it lost to Pixar-Disney’s Finding Nemo – and was an instant cult classic. Film critic Roger Ebert called it “creepy, eccentric, eerie, flaky, freaky, funky, grotesque, inscrutable, kinky, kooky, magical, oddball, spooky, uncanny, uncouth and unearthly.”
While the film had plenty going for it in terms of Chomet’s distinctive animation and largely dialogue-free style of storytelling, it’s hard to imagine the film without Charest’s energetic score, a stunning mix of big-band swing, mournful Tom Waits-ian waltzes and shimmering pop-jazz melodies and, with the endearing Pa Pa Pa Palavas, even a burst of surf-guitar rockabilly.
The swinging Belleville Rendez-Vous, with music by Charest and lyrics by Chomet, earned an Oscar nod for Best Original Song.
In 2004, Chomet told NPR that Charest’s soundtrack had a huge impact on the film’s sound and look.
“When we heard this music, it was so inspiring for the animators,” he said. “There was a lot of Ben’s own madness into the triplets.”
Calgary audiences will be able to hear the soundtrack and watch the film in its full glory on Nov. 2 as Charest and an eight-piece orchestra bring the madness to Arts Commons’ Jack Singer Concert Hall. Benoit will conduct the musicians as the film screens.
He first conceived of the live soundtrack idea when the film was celebrating its 10th anniversary. The concept of providing a live score as a film screens in the background was not completely novel a decade ago, but it certainly was less ubiquitous than it is now. Initially, the idea was based primarily around Benoit wanting to “get out of my studio,” he says. He first performed it at the Montreal Jazz Festival and eventually in France, China, Australia, New Zealand and throughout the United States.
Given that the orchestra is playing along to the film, they have to stay fairly close to the script. But, then again, it is jazz.
“We play quite close to the original score but there are moments where we let go and so it fluctuates from one night to another,” Charest says. “That’s always fun, especially if you are a jazz musician, to have some leeway in the concert. But it tends to be more towards the classical form than a jazz form.”
Chomet enlisted Charest for the film after hearing some scores the French-Canadian musician had done. He played a demo for the filmmaker of a song that he had penned for another film that was close to what Chomet had in mind for the Triplets.
“In that instant, he fell in love with the song,” Charest says. “He asked me if anyone owned it and I said no. So he said, ‘That’s the theme for the Triplets.’ From there on, we started working together.
“He had to choreograph a few of the scenes to do the animation, like the old lady dancing. You needed to do the animation upfront. Animation being a very prestigious and expensive process, you can’t overdraw and throw drawings in the garbage. You had to really think upfront and have everything (worked out) time-wise and how you want it to be done. The frame was my music. We worked on a few musical pieces where he wanted the ladies to dance and the stomping. So I did that in my studio and we worked together and basically, he used this music to animate. And then I did the final scoring about three weeks before it had to be finished.”
It was a long, fragmented process but Charest was creating a synthesis of all the music he enjoyed, whether it be jazz or “even car-chase music from the ’60s and ’70s or Italian Neapolitan music and even there’s a bit of concrete music and music made with objects.”
“It’s all part of my musical culture,” he says.
As for the live performances, Charest has put together a versatile group of musicians well-equipped for some of the more oddball musical detours of the score.
“You can’t bring on anyone to do it and sight-read it, because at one point the bass player has to get up and start doing tap dancing,” Charest says. “The guys have been touring for a while so they had to learn the whole part. We are just doing in real-time what we had done in part in the studio. Instead of doing one take and stopping and recording and taking another one and continuing the whole thing in one take with the film.”
“To be honest, the part I look forward to is like the eighth last bar of the show when I’m playing and say ‘I went through it without screwing up.’ We don’t play all the time, so sometimes we are just there hanging out on stage and doing our thing and then, oops, we have to run out and do a cue. We are not always playing full orchestra. We have fun and we have memories of little train wrecks here and there. So sometimes we look at each other and we say ‘OK, we nailed it.’”
Arts Commons presents The Triplets of Belleville: 20th Anniversary Film in Concert at the Jack Singer Concert Hall on Nov. 2 at 7:30 p.m.