Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014) is a movie of blown-out proportions, equal parts mesmerizing and befuddling. The movie will make sure you know. But that’s no surprise to those familiar with director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s catalog.
Centered around protagonist Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), best known for his role in a superhero trilogy, Birdman (who is akin to Batman), the film follows Riggan as he seeks to redeem a humdrum acting career. Riggan decides Broadway is the ticket; specifically, an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” — what unravels is farcical, although not necessarily sardonic.
BiRDMAN LiVE, with live score from Antonio Sanchez
Englert Theatre — Wednesday, March 1 at 8 p.m.
Birdman won numerous awards, including four Academy Awards and two Golden Globes. The forced melodrama and slick camera work operate in tandem to hold viewers’ attentions. But Birdman’s soundtrack might be the most surprising tug at the heart of the film’s innermost dilemmas.
Antonio Sánchez’s score is barebones and impulsive, consisting only of a trap set and gut-reactions during the film’s production. Due to the amount of classical music featured in the film, Sánchez’s score was disqualified from the Academy Award for Best Original Score. Nevertheless, the recognition of Birdman propelled him to international attention, beyond the circle of jazz heads.
Following his starburst, Sánchez has been scoring for television as well as releasing albums — perhaps most notably Three Times Three (2015, Cam Jazz), which featured three different trios, throughout which Sánchez plays percussion. He will release his first solo record, Bad Hombre, later this year, based on improvised drumming and electronics creating “soundscapes” rather than “tunes,” as he put it. Sánchez will also help put out a big band record in 2018, arranged by Vince Mendoza.
Sánchez speaks in a rhythm similar to his score (read: prone to sporadic outbursts). He employs a swaying mixture of slow-rolling swagger and brisk stride, often used to inflate and deflate emphasis. But it certainly isn’t self-congratulatory. Perhaps when one slaps polymer and copper-based alloys with wooden sticks for a living, then percussion might percolate into other facets of one’s life. Couple this with a cadence which lingers from his birthplace, Mexico City, polyrhythms abound in the way Sánchez speaks.
The Englert Theater will be screening Birdman with a live performance of the film’s score by Sánchez on Wednesday, March 1 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $35.
How do you approach your live performance? Do you emphasize improvisation, reinterpreting your performance that way?
When we did the sessions originally for [Birdman], it was all improvised. So I really want to stay true to the improvisation aspect of it because that’s what made it cool. I think that’s what made it what it is. But also I want to be faithful to the dramatic effect that we were able to achieve.
Just looking at those two things, I really like to make everything different each day. But I’m basing it on the feeling and the dramaticism that we achieve for each one of the scenes. So it’s a little bit of both, you know; I follow the same vibe and same energy. But I definitely improvise most of it while I’m performing.
Do you think, in light of that, your relationship to the different movements of the movie and characters has changed? Have the characters taken on evolved personalities to you?
Absolutely. I’ve seen the movie so many times now that I have developed an intimacy. Sometimes, while I’m doing it — not while I’m playing, and I’m just watching the movie — I play this game where I see how many lines I can remember. It’s getting to a scary point. I almost know the whole movie.
I noticed that I’ve been discovering a lot of new things every time, because I get the luxury of focusing on different things each time. When you see it for the first time, or the first couple of times, you’re focusing obviously on the plot, the main events that are happening. Sometimes I’ll focus on what’s going on in the background. Sometimes I’m going to focus on whoever is not talking — I’m just going to focus on their reactions to what anybody else is saying. Usually you don’t get to do that. You don’t get to watch it 40 or 50 times like I have probably. It’s fun, and then informs my playing. I wish I could redo the whole thing now that I know it so well. That would be great.
Antonio Sanchez performs with his quartet in Mexico City, 2009. — photo by Fernando Aceves
Would you say that you’re more intimate with the film now than the director, maybe?
Well, I don’t know about that. As a musician, for example, when you’re working on an album — no matter how many times somebody hears the album after it’s done — while you’re making it, you hear it like 1,000 times. You’re mixing and mastering and editing. So you end up being sick of an album. I’m assuming it’s a similar thing for [Iñárritu].
Talking about the way in which your music inhabits the space of the performance, the Academy Award snub was interesting in that the Academy focused on the amount of classical music in the movie. From what I understand, the classical music is supposed to be existing solely within the world of the movie, while your score exists outside it. How do you describe that juxtaposition?
The way Iñárritu explained it was that the classical music is part of the play being put on in the movie: What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, the adaptation that Riggan Thompson debuts. It overlaps a little bit among other things. The drums: that’s what you remember, that’s what everyone was saying. But the score was snubbed by the academy.
I think another interesting point is there’s other instances where other movies have featured classical music as the main ingredient. Then they also have classical music that has been prerecorded. For example, in The King’s Speech , they had a lot of classical music on both ends. But that was cool, that was OK for the academy, because it was classical versus classical. When you have drums versus classical, that’s no competition. I think they just wanted to get rid of this aberration of a score.
I think the drums lend themselves in an interesting way to heighten the dramatic effect, because in its essence the score is quite minimal. It’s just you.
Sometimes music with a lot harmony, with a lot of melody, spells out too much what the scene is supposed to be. You hear some strings and some minor chords: Obviously, this is sad. With the drums, they can be sad, they can be introspective, they can be wild, they can be stressful. You don’t get it spoon-fed. I think that’s one thing that delights. People are discovering the benefits of that. I’m doing a TV series now for MGM, and I’ve done a couple other movies. They all kind of want that. It leaves a little more to the imagination. It doesn’t spell it out too much.
What I liked about what I was able to do with the [Birdman] score is really showcase the range that drums can have when you put it up against an image. That hasn’t really been done before. It was really cool to find out the possibilities. We only scratched the surface. Now that I’m doing this TV series, there’s a lot more music. I’m getting to experiment with way more than I did on Birdman.
In reference to the breadth of the score, could you tell me about any influences?
I’ve been playing for so long I’m not sure if I channel influences directly. I just kind of hear sounds in my head, and they come out. But obviously what comes out is the product of the thousands of influences that I’ve had throughout my life. Whereas rock drummers, jazz drummers, funk drummers, drum and bass drummers, electronic drummers, classical music, it all comes together somehow. But it’s really hard for me to pinpoint anymore what is coming from where.
I just really try to focus on what’s in front of me at the moment. And that’s usually the philosophy that jazz musicians try to abide: Be in the moment, so that your improvisation is true to what is going on exactly at that point, so that it is not a regurgitated event that you are trying to apply the same thing to different situations. You try not to do that.
Do you think perhaps the personalities of where you come from inhabit that?
That’s the cool thing about jazz. You play what you are, what you’re feeling — if you’re sick that day, if you’re angry, if you’re happy — all comes out because you’re not playing preconceived ideas. You’re not supposed to; you’re not in a rock band playing parts. You are really going with the flow.
The way I see it, the best days of a performance, if you’re playing jazz, is you become a vessel of music. You’re not really trying to do anything deliberately. You’re just trying to lend yourself to be filled with what’s going on at that moment. When you achieve that, it’s an amazing feeling. Some of the best performances I can remember are when I’ve been really sick, for example, where you have no expectations. You are just trying to get through the night. Before you know it, you’re playing this really interesting stuff because you’re allowing the music to fill you, applying a certain energy to a certain situation.
After playing the soundtrack on any given night, do you reach a catharsis in your performance?
When you do something so much — and I’m not just talking about the movie; just playing in general — you’ll have good nights, you’ll have bad nights. Some nights you definitely get there. You reach a point of catharsis, like you said. Some nights, though, you can’t. It’s all a matter of energy, where you’re at psychologically, physically.
But the trick is: you’ve done it so much that, even if you’re having a horrible night, the audience will think you’re having an amazing night. You try to be professional above everything. If on top of that, you can please yourself and do it for the sake of art and music and improvisation, that’s also a plus. But I feel like you shouldn’t sacrifice quality for the sake of trying to be in the moment and trying to research what you can do at that specific point in time.
What are some of things that you evaluate yourself on, if you’re having a good night?
Sometimes you just feel like your instrument is all that it is: an instrument. You are really speaking to it. And sometimes you feel that it’s a foreign thing — pieces of metal and wood that you’re hitting and you can’t connect with. It’s strange. You can never know what is going to happen. Sometimes you’re feeling horrible and you have an amazing night. Others, you’re feeling great and have a horrible night. That’s what keeps it interesting. It’s completely unpredictable.