Back before films were made with soundtracks, movie theaters used to have live orchestras (or tireless piano players), or else a record had to be synced up with the silent film reel. When we watch silent films now, on DVD, music of a similar, anachronistic variety is usually set to the soundtrack. Although, manic ragtime riffs–i.e. something akin to “The Entertainer“–can sometimes sell the film a little short, especially if the film is anything but a comedy.
Here’s an idea: super-impose your own soundtrack.
I did this once while I was watching the 1919 German gothic masterpiece the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. A film that visually eery is incredibly underserved by barren piano exercises (i.e. in the copy I watched) or generic orchestral drills (in every other version) that fail to emphasize the overall mood of the piece. So what I did was turn the sound off and play the Cure’s eponymous album from 2004. And it was a perfect fit, calling for comparisons to how Dark Side of the Moon compliments Wizard of Oz.
Ambiguously ominous lyrics like “I can’t find myself” and “It’s not the same you,” beg for thematic tie-ins, what with all the warped set designs and mental hospital imagery. And with those chilling atmospherics and grabbing-hand-of-the-boogeyman grooves that carry the album along like a sleepwalker stuck in a perpetual nightmare–the experience is multi-sensually gratifying.
Of course, the album doesn’t match the length of the film (few do), so looping is essential, but the conceptuality is so consistent throughout that it doesn’t matter exactly which song underscores which scene–if anything, this will result in a totally new evocation for every subsequent looping.
You can do this with any album you think might fit the content mood of the album–unless you want to go for something David Lynchian–but here are some recommendations: Bauhaus’ Mask to Nosferatu, David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs to Metropolis, and Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief to Phantom of the Opera.
Don’t get me wrong, the piano-playing in any given Buster Keaton film or a score such as that of Phantom of the Opera may be indelibly- and brilliantly-composed, but let’s pretend for a minute that silent films could exist in a time where we have access to all the great music we do today (have access, that is), and see what we can’t come up with.