Savannah Music Festival patrons will be treated to a special screening of the highly acclaimed film “Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance,” with composer and drummer Antonio Sanchez performing his award-winning drum score live to the film.
The 2014 dark comedy starring Michael Keaton is the story of an aged actor, known for his superhero role “Birdman,” trying to stage a play on Broadway. The film garnered praise for its groundbreaking approach to movie making and for its highly original score. The movie appears to be shot in a single take, moving without interruption through the story, while accompanied mostly by Sanchez’s improvisational jazz drumming.
Out of its nine nominations at the 87th Academy Awards, “Birdman” won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best Cinematography. The movie also won Outstanding Cast at the 21st Screen Actors Guild Awards, as well as Best Actor and Best Screenplay at the 72nd Golden Globe Awards.
Score on tour
Pairing a film screening with a live performance of the score is not unheard of, though it is a rarity these days. During the silent era of film, music accompaniment was sometimes handled by a pianist, who would improvise the score live, or even a full orchestra. Once sound was added to celluloid in 1929, and the film score profession was born, live performances became less ubiquitous.
The process by which the score of “Birdman” was produced is so idiosyncratic in nature, it allows more room for a live reproduction to be possible, and the rare chance for a film score to go on tour.
When director Alejandro G. Inarritu initially asked Sanchez to score the film’s music, Sanchez’s instinct was to write rhythmic themes for each of the characters. After some demos, Inarritu asked for a different approach. He wanted it to be more improvisational, which set Sanchez free to write more on the spot.
They worked closely during the early days of filming and later in post-production to sketch out the pacing of the film. Having no previous points of reference for the innovative approach, they improvised around each other. One of the first sounds in the film is Sanchez asking Inarritu a question in Spanish.
Sanchez, with Inarritu guiding him, recorded over 70 demos to just the script at first, which were used on set to help guide the actors' movement. Once the filming was done, they returned to the studio and re-recorded the score over the film in less than two days.
“Jazz musicians are trained and used to reacting to their surroundings,” Sanchez said. “This time, it didn’t seem that different. It was my subconscious part of my brain that was reacting to whatever I was being told and whatever I was looking at. Even though it was different, I felt like myself. I wasn’t trying to do something that I wasn’t used to, or trying to sound in a way that made me uncomfortable. It was really easy; that’s why it only took a day and a half.”
“Birdman” marked the first time Sanchez moved into the film arena. Sanchez is a highly touted, Grammy Award-winning jazz drummer known in the music world for his work with famed jazz guitarist Pat Metheny. His 2017 solo album, “Bad Hombre,” garnered him a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album, as well.
Sanchez, who became a United States citizen two years ago, was born in Mexico City and studied music at Berklee College of Music in Boston and at Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music. Moving into film was a natural fit. Sanchez is the grandson of famed Mexican actor Ignacio Lopez Tarso, and his mother was a film critic.
“I was incredibly nervous, just because I didn’t know how to approach it. Once Inarritu called me and said I want you to be yourself; that’s when it became a lot of fun," he said.
“To me, the most interesting part of the entire equation was working with him. I’ve been very lucky to work with so many musicians in my life, but to work with someone who is not a musician, but is such a creative force, it was very inspiring to see how much he improvises as he’s doing his thing. There’s so much similarities between what they do and what we do, it’s just a different medium. Just to be able to witness that and pass the ball back and forth between the two of us was just a blast.”
Sanchez will perform April 1 on the Lucas Theatre stage by himself with just his drum kit. It is not only a rare opportunity to see a composer bring a score to life in real time — a process that is additionally interesting due to the improvisational nature of the score — but also a rare chance to see a drummer perform solo. Sanchez takes advantage of the opportunity.
“I was reflecting on the fact that I am one of the only drummers, if not the only drummer in the world, that gets to play some of these stages by myself,” Sanchez said. “Obviously, I play big stages with bands, but to be by myself on stage with my drums, without competing with any other frequencies … In the movie, there are not other musical instruments, so we can crank up the drums and they sound glorious. It’s a lot of fun.”