PET SHOP BOYS, WOULDN'T NORMALLY DO THIS KIND OF THING. ESPECIALLY IN TRAFALGAR SQUARE!
Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe a.k.a. the pop duo Pet Shop Boys, presented the premiere of their first live soundtrack to the pre-talkie, groundbreaking, Soviet silent film Battleship Potemkin, with subtitles. On a blustery, cold, and drizzly night last month in London's Trafalgar Square, your intrepid arts correspondent was in the 15,000 strong audience to behold this innovative, free, unticketed, gigantic screening.This potentially highbrow evening, where the German arthouse 26-piece Dresdner Sinfoniker met the Pet Shop Boys synthesizers and disco beats on this extraordinary hybrid classic film/concert event took place with Nelson lookind down abit befuddled from his column.
The performance started for me with the swirling machine sounds of the street cleaners at work, and at first I thought this was part of the contemporary classical music show. There weren't any seats and as I expected the performance turned out to be a physical experience, dodging the many umbrellas. And we were already informed by mc Simon McBurney's theatrical introduction high on the roof top of St Martin-in-the-Fields, that there had been 1,322 political demonstrations in the square since 1843, including Stop The War in Iraq 2003, Michael Foot's CND speech and who could ever forget the poll tax riots?
The world-renowed director Sergei Eisentein's film about insurrection was amazingly commissioned by the Soviet government and made 1925. It is a masterpiece of 20th century culture and is overtly political. The intense narrative is of a Russian navy crew downing tools, then rising up against their imperious masters, whose facial uniform seemed to include having colossal moustaches. Also they were able to move in a comedic Charlie chaplinesque way. The proletariat had to eat stinky, maggot-infested meat and this is the springboard for the sailors to squable with the officers leading to a mutiny that starts a bloody revolution and ends with a brutal massacre.
In the memorable Odessa Steps slaughter scene, the robotic soldiers shot blameless women and children at point blank range. And in the indelible sequence of the fatally wounded mother trying to protect and stop her baby's pram from rolling down the steep steps, we hear in a mostly instrumental score, Tennant's plaintive voice singing repeatedly "how come we went to war"? Giving genuine moving and poignant moment to the evening. The audience could sense the emotional tug of the recent Beslan school atrocity. These old cinematic images in front of us mirrored the current tragic events we see so often today with the new 24 hour technology. It felt as if the past and present troubles of the world had collided that moment in Trafalgar Square.
Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone had granted Philip Dodd, director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts (who this month will be departing to China), the use of Trafalgar Square for the day.Dodd then approached the Pet Shop Boys with the idea that he was contemplating screening Battleship Potemkin, but wanted a cultural twist of accompanying the film with an up-to-the-minute soundtrack. Tennant and Lowe had never composed a soundtrack before, but the outcome is an evocative 73-minute piece of music that is a combination of accustomed orchestral score and electronic keyboard music, heavy dance beats and three new songs.
To me, one of the most intriguing and ambitious fusions of the project is the inflection the Dresdner Sinfoniker (the orchestra only comes together to play contemporary compositions) gave to the music of the Pet Shop Boys. Torsten Rasch's orchestrations move sublimely from the classical avant garde to the more synthesized harmonic pop sound. At one stage we even had lines from the Lord's Prayer as the sailors wrangle with the officers, of course with a disco beat! Eisentstein's notion was that a new soundtrack should be written every decade.
The event ended with the Pet shop Boys singing about freedom, then an encore of one of the principal tunes, with the figure of Neil Tennant projected large onto the front of the National Gallery.
As I left to make my way home, I felt that I had really enjoyed the arty night. It was quite extraordinary and uplifting. This is one outdoor art show that reached it's full experimental potential, pulling off the magic feat of highbrow and popular culture, hitting it's target with a message for today of substance, with an echo from the past.
The words from the 1993 Pet Shop Boys hit song "I wouldn't normally do this kind of thing" come to mind, "people think i'm crazy, tell that it's true, let them watch with amazement". And that's what I did.
And who knows? Maybe next year in Moscow! Because the film and music will live forever!!!