Dating back to the era of silent films, music has played a fundamental role in the moviegoing experience. In those days, it was common for theaters to employ a house pianist who would provide the plucky and dramatic keystrokes that would add tension or levity to the film as the action unfolded.
“We tried to find a pianist here in the Portland area, but they’re pretty hard to find,” says Northwest Film Center Director Bill Foster. “We used to have one here in Portland, but he moved away.”
That hasn’t stopped the Film Center from putting on the Reel Music Film Festival. Now in its 31st year, the scarcity of bona fide film pianists has opened up the festival — which features everything from vintage musical performance clips to new documentary and dramatic films exploring all elements of music — to many creative opportunities.
One Reel Music tradition is inviting local bands to create their own interpretations of classic films and play them live during the screenings. And this year, Foster and the Festival have called upon local bands to provide the soundtrack for several of the “Hitchcock Nine,” a set of Alfred Hitchcock films recently restored by the British Film Institute.
“So I thought: Wouldn’t it be interesting to invite contemporary musicians in Portland, to give them a DVD of the films and have them develop their own scores and performances for them,” explains Foster.
Foster is particularly excited about Courtney Von Drehle’s 3 Leg Torso, who will be providing the score for the movie Blackmail. “That’s the kind of music that, in my mind, would provide an interesting juxtaposition.”
Reel Music not only explores the history of music in film, but also showcases more modern and literal applications of the art form. The Film Center reached out to local filmmaker Dustin Morrow to help curate a program strictly devoted to contemporary music video made by local filmmakers like Alicia J. Rose.
Like Foster, Rose is also looking forward to Reel Music’s treatment of the Hitchcock Nine. “Live performances to the Hitchcock films — I’m super psyched on that, it’s brilliant! I, personally, as a musician, had the chance to do that a couple of times, not with Hitchcock but with other things, and I love it,” said Rose from her home in northeast Portland. “It’s always such a treat to see classic film with reinterpreted soundtracks by brilliant musicians. I’m super excited to see what Courtney is bringing to the table.”
The Reel Music Festival runs through October 27, 2013.
The audio story for this article came from a pilot episode of OPB’s upcoming arts radio program State of Wonder. The new radio show premieres Saturday, November 2 at noon on OPB Radio.