Movie News & Reviews

Movie, live music, and an earworm at the Mondavi

Live musicians perform the score for a screening “The Triplets of Belleville” at the Mondavi Center on Friday, March 4.
Live musicians perform the score for a screening “The Triplets of Belleville” at the Mondavi Center on Friday, March 4. Courtesy Mondavi Center

‘Finding Nemo” may have won the 2004 Oscar for best animated feature, but the most astonishing animated film for many mature audiences that year was the chaotic, deadpan “The Triplets of Belleville.”

The screening of “Triplets” accompanied by a live eight-piece orchestra led by Montreal movie maestro-guitarist Benoit Charest on Friday, March 4, is part of Mondavi’s Film + Music series. “The combination of the live music and bike theme in Davis was just irresistible,” said Jeremy Ganter, Mondavi’s director of programming and associate executive director. (The fate of a bike enthusiast figures prominently in the plot.)

“There are two main elements that people should come for,” said Ganter. “Doing it in Jackson Hall, the grandeur of it, the sheer size of it on the big screen, with musicians on stage in a proper concert hall, is really fun and unique. And just the energy of live music. Even though it’s carefully timed to the film, it has that extra energy of live musicians on stage.

“The music is so cool, so catchy,” said Ganter. “And the main theme is the biggest earworm you will ever hear. Every time I hear it, it gets stuck in my head for days. Sort of a blessing and a curse. It’s a sign of really good composition.”

The plot of “Triplets” is pretty straightforward: An elderly woman grooms her grandson, Champion, to become a Tour de France cyclist. Champion is kidnapped by the French mob and taken to the baroque metropolis of Belleville as a pawn in a gambling enterprise. Grandma and the family hound dog join forces with a trio of senior-citizen cabaret performers to rescue him.

The overall film itself is not so readily described. It is exhilarating, melancholy, shadowy, physically cluttered, and darkly funny, with aesthetic nods to Jacques Tati, Mr. Bean, Buster Keaton, Tex Avery, graphic novels, the performance troupe Stomp, and the 1950s. There is almost no dialogue. Primal rhythms, overlapping sound effects and grotesquely shaped characters jostle the senses. The animation has the look of a Betty Boop and Warner Brothers love child. And the score extends from Gypsy swing to surf music to the use of household items as musical instruments.

The surreal imagery and sonic rapture here feel inseparable, like a cinematic anomaly cobbled together by French writer-director Sylvain Chomet from disparate sources and jolted to life with a surge of 1930-era hot club jazz. And the film’s infectious theme, “Belleville Rende-vouz,” was nominated for best original song.

After the success of the film, Charest developed a cabaret version of his score and then a live score to accompany the film.

“I was thinking of ways to get out of my studio,” said Charest, “and the slavery of writing film scores (he’s penned more than 20) in front of the computer.”

The pairing of live music and cinema has found audiences in several university cities in the United States as well as in Charest’s native Canada. It makes its way to San Francisco in April to be a part of the first SF Opera Lab season.

Charest had never been in the audience for such an event. “My first experience of music and film would probably be ‘Fantasia’ from Disney,” he said.

But he liked the concept, and decided it would take an eight-piece orchestra with horns to properly render the score.

“What I like is people to acknowledge that behind the music is (real live) musicians,” he said by phone. “I know the aesthetic of today is very computer wise and a lot of the guys that tour look like they are filing their tax report while music is coming out of their speakers. But I thought it’s important to perpetuate that live musicians are wonderful to see. You can switch between looking at the film and at the musicians and the whole process. It just feels like you are part of a process and I think that’s fun.”

As for the thematic earworm, Charest is well aware of its paradoxical effect. “I’m really sorry about that. I’ve learned to expel it after a couple of drinks.”

Benoit Charest & Le Terrible Orchestre de Belleville

Screening of the animated 2003 film “The Triplets of Belleville,” with live performance of its original score

When: 8 p.m., Friday, March 4

Where: Jackson Hall, Mondavi Center, 1 Shields Ave., Davis

Cost: $10-$40

Information: 866-754-2787; mondaviarts.org

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