Friday, 11 December 2015

7th Heaven (1927), with KT Tunstall, Mara Carlyle and Max de Wardener, BFI

Oh this was a sheer delight and one for the whole family.

Plaid’s Not For Threes is amongst my favourite electronica and is a genre-stretching triumph featuring a giddy diversity of sound humanised by the smooth yearning tones of Mara Carlyle. Ms C has gone on to a solo career of impeccable uneasy listening that includes virtuoso saw playing. Tonight she lined up with composer Max de Wardener known for breaking ground on film scores and, more surprisingly, for some at least, KT Tunstall.

KT has long been admired in our house and my daughter made the 300 mile round trip from Bristol just to hear her play this most curious of challenges. When Beth first saw Ms Tunstall she had to sit on the bar of the Junction in Cambridge to see her over the grown-ups’ heads, now she was in Row C with a glass of wine and a clear view above the other adults.

Oscar hattrick heroine Janet Gaynor
For all her pop pedigree, Tunstall is first and foremost a performer and she has the soul as well as the technical ability to keep pace with Max, Mara and, of course, Frank. This was uplifting music combined with a film that still proves irresistibly moving… the audience didn’t stand a chance: all cool was removed by an irresistible combination of Janet’s eyes, Charles’ smile and an exuberant score that whilst centre stage always remained a friend to their performance.

7th Heaven is a companion piece to Murnau’s perfect Sunrise, a mere third of star Janet Gaynor’s Best Actress Oscar (awarded for both films plus Street Angel (1928)), and is tonally similar – Frank and Friedrich they knew. As with Mara’s first solo album, it is The Lovely
Heaven on the 7th floor
Plundering my daughter’s post-match thoughts… the film is seemingly religious with a continued theme of Heaven and Hell. The “remarkable” man Chico (the ludicrously dashing Charles Farrell) works down in the depths, in the city’s hellish sewers but he always “looks up” and indeed lives at the very top of a tall tenement from which he can stroll out across the roofs of Paris, never looking downwards.

Across the street, Diane (Janet Gaynor, her hair liberated from Sunrise’s dodgy wig…) is beaten down by her alcoholic sister Nana (Gladys Brockwell) and forced to forage in order to supply her with absinthe (we’ve all been there). Redemption is possible from their well-off Aunt Valentine (Jessie Haslett) and Uncle George (Brandon Hurst) but Diane has just enough strength to resist her sister’s attempts to make her lie about their virtuosity.

Sisters, sisters...
She is violently cast down for this and is in the process of being throttled in the gutter when Chico’s hand reaches out of the drains to lift Nana high above a manhole – there’s a superb overhead shot of her struggling against his might.

Chico has to lift Diane up – there is almost no fight left in her. When her sister is arrested and tries to drag Diane with her, he intervenes again telling the police that Diane is his wife.

This lie needs to be substantiated and so Chico takes Diane up the stairway to his heaven (sorry) – the arrangement is meant to be temporary, only until the Police are satisfied that their relationship is real. There’s a lovely light touch in this film and Diane’s panic at seeing the single bed in Chico’s room is played out with comedic concern until she sees her gallant room-mate set out to sleep on the floor.

I'm not sure that Mrs Joyce could cope with watching Charles Farrell in The River...
But things don’t end there and Diane grows on Chico in spite of her wayward hairdressing skills. Farrell towers over Gaynor but there’s a real gentility and respect in their physical relationship. What was a marriage for convenience soon becomes something more – Chico and Diane are Heaven together.

There’s faith in the film but it isn’t necessarily derived from organised religion. Diane and Chico’s love is based on their faith in each other and they remain true to themselves. Even their marriage is a home-made affair: no need for a priest when they are sure of love.

War is declared… and the real tests are to come as Chico heads off to the front. He gives Diane one of two rosaries handed to him by a priest but, again, these religious symbols will prove to be more about their own devotion. They promise to hold the necklaces every day at 11 and to “be” with the other – to connect no matter what the distance and to find their personal heaven.

But the war will be long and with so many tragedies around them how can Diane and Chico’s state of grace possibly be maintained…

The score was unusual for a silent film and occasionally I found myself watching the band as well as the film how can you not when there’s so much going on? Mara played ukulele, piano and, of course a saw whilst Max alternated between piano, bass and electronics, sitting on the floor twiddling with unseen buttons and dials. Liam Byrne extracted the unexpected from a viola da gamba and also the Lirone (something like a Celtic cello possessing a mournful vitality) whilst drummer Alex Thomas gave a dynamic lesson in percussive versatility.

Now, songs are controversial in the Silent Village but here they were deployed with intelligence and restraint – lyrics wound carefully around the emotional narrative, enhancing and not shouting down the visual expression; always at pains to reflect and not foreshadow. The combination of voices was also pitch perfect in every sense with both singers working generously together throughout.

Real craft went into this music and it was very much the slave to Borzage’s rhythms… from the quite understated opening instrumental sections to the martial beat of the battle and the overwhelming swells of the closing sequence.

Now, where have we seen this sort of thing recently...?
The score was a specially-commissioned as part of the BFI’s Love season which continues through December and beyond – further details are on their website.

Hopefully this joyous combination will find its way onto digital media at some point – my daughter’s not going to be the only one buying it! Thanks KT, MC, MdW and FB.

And a personal PS, my daughter’s musical heroine turned out to be every bit as genuine and gracious as she has always seemed.

Further reading on the band:

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