A conductor stands at attention. Before him are 25 of the North Carolina Symphony’s finest. To his right sits a row of six musicians that look more like Mumford & Sons than Stravinsky. Silence.
On the film screen behind the orchestra bursts a cityscape, with a golden beam of light streaking across it. Duke Performances presentation of the 2012 film Beasts of the Southern Wild, with Wordless Music, North Carolina Symphony, and the Lost Bayou Ramblers, begins.
The camera pulls back to reveal the Fox Searchlight logo. Still more silence. All goes black, and from that darkness comes the sound of wind rustling trees.
We see a dilapidated single-wide trailer held aloft by branches. A literal treehouse. Inside a little black girl named Hushpuppy (played by Quvenzhané Wallis), about seven years old with bushy hair, builds a bird’s nest from mud. Cut to outside. She treads carefully through mud and debris, stopping to place her hand gently upon the side of a plump, sleeping, black wild pig.
As she does, our conductor, watching the movie scene intently, raises his baton in anticipation. We can hear the pig’s heartbeat.
With the baton, the conductor conjures the sweet notes of a celeste. There’s a reason it means “heavenly” in French. Part glockenspiel, part toy piano, the instrument sounds magical, despite the grimy makeshift barnyard on screen.
Above the celeste, the girl narrates: “All the time, everywhere, everything’s hearts are beating and squirting, and talking to each other the ways I can’t understand. Most of the time they probably be saying: I’m hungry, or I gotta poop. But sometimes they be talkin’ in codes.”
Her manner is direct and confident. She is a miniature warrior, not a Disney princess.
She adventures through the forest while our conductor adds low strings and bells. In a momentary silence, the girl and her father Wink (played by Dwight Henry) float across the bayou on a raft made from an old pickup truck. All we hear is water lapping against the levee as the father describes the ugliness of the factories on the opposite side.
He hears the machines. But Hushpuppy, our small hero, closes her eyes and hears the celeste again. This time, it is rapid and growing in volume, a gentle rain becoming a downpour. Strings emerge — some with a sweeping legato and others a rhythmic staccato; something is approaching. Everything swells, and the celeste continues its rapid cycle underneath the storm of strings.
As the camera sweeps across the slums of the bayou’s edge, Hushpuppy’s voice proudly asserts: “They think we all gonna drown down here. But we ain’t goin’ nowhere.”
The neighborhood below, called ” The Bathtub” is cut off from the rest of the world by a levee. As the community holds an afternoon celebration, our conductor cues the strings to begin a plucky pizzicato — seemingly too delicate and dreamlike for the drunken revelry on screen.
But as folks leap joyously onto a parade of trucks, swinging bottles back and forth like pirates, the conductor’s onstage sextet of scruffy musicians takes over and the orchestra backs off.
An accordion’s buzz, a fiddle’s squeal, and a banjo’s strum spring to life, dowsing the orchestral sweetness with hot sauce. Our fiddler begins to shout-sing in French as he plays. We see images of The Bathtub: children playing, elders laughing and drinking. The orchestra sweeps back in to join the band and we realize the connection between their rhythms and chord progressions. They line up like cogs in a wheel.
Over the next 1.5 hours of the Beasts of the Southern Wild, the orchestra and the Cajun band, Lost Bayou Ramblers, will take turns peppering the film with live scoring — sometimes separately, sometimes jointly, but always with a fusion of flavors that tickles the ear and invigorates the soul. The hairs on the back of my neck rose.
North Carolina Symphony conductor Ryan McAdams is not the first to tackle this exercise. For five years, New York company Wordless Music has produced film screenings with the score track removed and the country’s top orchestras reproducing the music live.
Beasts of the Southern Wild with Wordless Music has previously been mounted in Manhattan, New Orleans, and London. Our state symphony and the Louisiana contemporary Cajun band launch the 2017-18 Duke Performances season with two sold-out nights at the R.J. Reynolds Industries Theater on Duke University’s West Campus in Durham. And the experience was stirring.
Part fairytale, part action-adventure, the story is told through the eyes and ears of Hushpuppy. Songwriter-composer Dan Romer (A Great Big World’s “Say Something” and Shawn Mendes’ “Treat You Better”) teamed with director-screenwriter Benh Zeitlin to develop the film’s unique and theme-based orchestral score before bringing Lost Bayou Ramblers on board. If Romer and Zeitlin brought the champagne, the Cajun boys brought the gin.
Beasts of the Southern Wild is textbook magical realism: a primarily realistic view of the world with added fantastical elements. When the entire bayou ends up under water, we do not question it, for we have seen it happen. When Hushpuppy meets giant Ice-Age beasts, we do not question it, for we believe in her childlike wonderment at the universe.
The screenplay was adapted by Zeitlin and Lucy Alibar from her one-act play Juicy and Delicious. The $1.8 million flick was the festival darling of 2012 and quickly became the little-movie-that-could, earning over $21 million at the box office and nabbing the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and the Camera d’Or for new filmmakers at Cannes Film Festival.
It shocked the Hollywood establishment when it landed four Oscar® nominations including Best Picture (lost to Argo.), Best Director (lost to Ang Lee for Life of Pi.), Best Actress (lost to Jennifer Lawrence for Silver Linings Playbook.), and Best Adapted Screenplay (lost to Chris Terrio for Argo).
Hushpuppy was played by then-unknown nine-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis, who became the youngest Best Actress Oscar nominee in history. Her hot-tempered father, Wink, was played by Dwight Henry. Henry, a baker and Hurricane Katrina survivor, had never appeared on film before either.
The well-reviewed musical score was shockingly underrepresented in the 2012-13 awards season. The Alliance of Women Film Journalists, the Black Reel Awards, and the Los Angeles Film Critics awarded the songwriters, who received a handful of nominations from a few small organizations. 2013 Oscar nominations were locked-in for John Williams (Lincoln), Thomas Newman (Skyfall), Alexandre Desplat (Argo), and Mychael Danna (Life of Pi). But the bizarre inclusion of Dario Marinelli’s score for Anna Karenina may have slaughtered Romer & Zeitlin’s only shot at the gold.
The score of Beasts of the Southern Wild has been called the film’s “unsung hero.” I agree, arguing that much of the film’s success is thanks to that music. I knew the score by heart already; but as I watched it performed right in front of me in concert, I noticed the importance of every note, instrument, and musician. It is one thing to enjoy a soundtrack in the car. It is quite another thing to see actual hands making actual sounds just feet away from you.
I would sometimes forget whether the film was leading the musicians or the musicians were leading the film. Or was it somehow both? They became intertwined so perfectly.
This film — often cited as an allegory for devastation from Hurricane Katrina — is beyond relevant this month. While news footage shows us flood damage from far above, this film gives us a child’s-eye view of the earth-shattering effect that flooding can bring to entire communities of people. In his pre-concert remarks, Duke Performances executive director Aaron Greenwald noted the film’s “unfortunate prescience” adding “Our hearts go out to those suffering such horrible loss.”
I recommend checking out two of North Carolina Symphony’s upcoming screening + live score concerts: John Williams’ Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Sept. 15-17 at Raleigh’s Meymandi Concert Hall) and John Williams’ Home Alone (Nov. 24th and 25th at Meymandi Concert Hall).
The symphony will also be presenting a suite of John Williams’ Star Wars music (Nov. 10th and 11th at Meymandi Concert Hall), but will not adhere to the screening of one particular film. While John Williams is indeed a legendary composer, I hope that Wordless Music will return to us and present smaller films with lesser-known scores, such as Beasts of the Southern Wild.
SECOND OPINION: Sept. 6th Durham, NC Duke Chronicle (student newspaper) preview by Sarah Derris: http://www.dukechronicle.com/article/2017/09/in-wake-of-harvey-live-score-of-beasts-of-the-southern-wild-strikes-a-chord; Sept. 6th Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Allison Hussey: https://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/beasts-of-the-southern-wild-with-wordless-music/Event?oid=7595310and Sept. 2nd Raleigh, NC News & Observer preview by Isaac Weeks: http://www.newsobserver.com/entertainment/arts-culture/article170233877.html.
BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD, with Wordless Music, North Carolina Symphony, & Lost Bayou Ramblers (Duke Performances, Sept. 9 and 10 in R.J. Reynolds Industries Theater on Duke University’s West Campus).
SHOW: https://dukeperformances.duke.edu/events/beasts-southern-wild-wordless-music-north-carolina-symphony-lost-bayou-ramblers/ and https://www.facebook.com/events/243610982790107/.
VIDEO PREVIEWS: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SyXrPm6JX7U, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jWNMUH9A0F4, and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dbgl6GXtShM.
PRESENTER: http://dukeperformances.duke.edu/, https://www.facebook.com/dukeperformances, and https://twitter.com/DukePerformance.
Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012 film): https://beastsofthesouthernwild.com/ (official website), http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/879854/Beasts-of-the-Southern-Wild/ (Turner Classic Movies), http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2125435/ (Internet Movie Database), https://www.facebook.com/BeastsoftheSouthernWild (Facebook page), https://twitter.com/beaststhemovie (Twitter page), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beasts_of_the_Southern_Wild (Wikipedia).
Wordless Music (the house band of New York City’s Wordless Music series): http://www.wordlessmusic.org/ (official website) and https://twitter.com/wordlessmusic (Twitter page).
North Carolina Symphony (Raleigh, NC-based symphony orchestra ): http://www.ncsymphony.org/ (official website), https://www.facebook.com/ncsymphony (Facebook page), https://twitter.com/ncsymphony (Twitter page), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_Carolina_Symphony (Wikipedia).
Lost Bayou Ramblers (Cajun band from Louisiana): http://www.lostbayouramblers.com/ (official website), https://www.facebook.com/LostBayouRamblers/ (Facebook page), https://twitter.com/lostbayouramble (Twitter page), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Lost_Bayou_Ramblers (Wikipedia).
[RUN HAS CONCLUDED.]
Dustin K. Britt, a Triangle native, is an actor and director. He holds an M.A.Ed. in Special Education from East Carolina University and teaches locally. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment. You can find him on Facebook as Dustin K. Britt and via his movie blog Hold the Popcorn.