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Groundbreaking silent films interpreted anew with music from the Awful Purdies

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Women’s March: Awful Purdies and Cinema Pioneers

FilmScene — Wednesday, March 13

The Awful Purdies are collaborating with FilmScene on the silent films featured during the Women’s March event. — courtesy of the band

The Awful Purdies, the all-female Midwest folk scene staple ensemble, will be accompanying silent movies by female film pioneers on Wednesday, March 13 at 6:30 p.m. as part of Film Scene’s Women’s March events. Tickets are $15. The program will consist of works from early 20th century female filmmakers such as Alice Guy Blaché, one of the first prominent female directors of the early 1900s. Entirely curated by the Awful Purdies, the hour long event will showcase how female artists and their works can come together, even with nearly a century between them.

“It was hard to choose the films from this catalogue because each filmmaker had such great offerings. Reading up on these artists, many of these female filmmakers were tackling issues of abuse, racism and sexism well before their male counterparts,” Awful Purdies founding member Katie Roche said in an email. “In some ways, it feels miraculous that these films even exist.”

As a five-piece acoustic ensemble, the Awful Purdies balance rotating songwriting responsibilities with the multi-instrumentality of their members to bring complex, collaborative melodies and expert harmonies to each of their projects. The Awful Purdies chose films that reflect the way that women approach art, seeking films that were either directed by or directly depicting women in pioneering roles, drawing from their own experiences and picking pieces that resonated with them as creatives.

“We’ve really enjoyed trying to put music to A Daughter of the Law [1921], which has its own version of being tied to a railroad tie with a train chugging down the tracks. The main character is an ace investigator who gets herself into hot water trying to break up a ring of bootleggers. She’s super nonchalant about being a badass, and we loved the idea of anyone in the late 1910s getting to see a women move so freely and with so much authority in the world. She reminded us of our own lyrics — times when we remind our listeners of their own strength.” Roche continued.

To shed a new light on these formative films, the Awful Purdies will be pulling from their three-album catalogue, morphing some of it to match and accompany the specific needs of each piece.

“In some cases, when a film is dragging, we drag right along with it. Old films don’t change scenes every three seconds like modern day cuts, so it’s been fun to play with that old fashioned timing … The real joy, beyond giving a more modern soundtrack to these films, has been the interplay of the poetry of the lyrics with the images. There have been so many moments where the lyrics align perfectly, alarmingly, with a moment on film. We’ve felt like college kids watching Wizard of Oz while listening to Pink Floyd,” Roche said. “It’s fun to connect across genres, time and space and feel the synchronicity.”

As a group that rotates the roles of lead singer and songwriter, the band is used to collaborating and exercising their musical skills in a way that highlights the creative voices of each of the members. Coming together as actualized, individual artists isn’t a foreign concept to these women, and their collaborative power within the group will easily be tuned in to the sensitivity and analytical strength needed to create an effective soundtrack.

“We learn how to listen and become scaffolding for a song by another and how to advocate for parts of something that we believe in,” Roche said. “It would be so much easier if one person just bulldozed the project and dominated the sonic landscape of the band, but instead we’re constantly trying to figure out what each song needs and how to elevate each member of the collective. It’s slow and exhausting and dirty and totally worth it.”

Turning this spirit to the films they selected, the band worked to weave their body of work into a program focused on highlighting the spirit of the selected films.

“We are pliable with the storylines of our songs. We might know what we think they mean, but we’re open to them being transformed by being paired with images or new storylines,” Roche said. “As we watched the films our own lyrics changed meaning, and our own musical themes jumped out at us in new ways. It’s good to undo the way a song has always been.”

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In this case, undoing is not negating so much as molding together two works. By allowing these songs to come together with the films they are accompanying, they create, in a way, something altogether new — not just to the artists living and passed, but for those lucky enough to watch it happen.


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Hilton Garden Inn Iowa City Downtown University at 7:15 a.m. (program starts at 7:30 a.m.)

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University of Iowa

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