Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Fantastic in the Fine Arts: Transit of Venus's Nosferatu Live

Creating a new soundtrack for a beloved movie classic may be an inglorious task. See what happened to Phillip Glass in 1998, when he was commissioned to write a score for Dracula (1931). His music was superb, and Kronos Quartet delivered a great performance, but it worked poorly with Todd Browning's film. Most of the time, Glass distracted the viewer, fighting the story on the screen or running away from it, instead of starting a dialog.

New Zealand musician Kristie Addison and her band Transit of Venus (Marcel Bellve and Mathew Bosher, guitars; Tory Staples, drums; Plum Green and Marcel Bellve, additional vocals) faced a similar challenge in 2010, when they decided to record Nosferatu Live, an 84-minute concept album based on the 1922 movie by Friedrich W. Murnau. This time, the result was much more satisfying.

Rock guitars might not seem appropriate for a German Expressionism masterpiece. But Transit of Venus did not pretend they were doing a “new original” soundtrack. Instead, their music is a contemporary comment on the story. Or, as Addison herself explains, it’s “a twenty-something year-old who sees Murnau’s Nina as a far more inspiring heroine than Meyers' Bella” retelling an old tale.

So, what does that twenty-something see?

First, and most of all, a love story. From the beginning (and the very first song right after the introduction, “The Love of John and Nina,” leaves no doubt about that) to the end, Nina’s feelings for Jonathan are what really matters. This is perhaps ToV’s greatest accomplishment. The music is able to shed a new light over a classic horror story. [Note: The names of characters in Nosferatu are somewhat confusing, given that they were changed in some versions of the film to avoid infringing on Bram Stoker's Dracula.  The names used here are the ones used by Addison when describing the album and the movie.]

At least it did for me - I had watched Nosferatu countless times before and had never seen it this way. After all, Max Schrek is nothing like Christopher Lee, Gary Oldman or even Bela Lugosi. His vampire is a sheer monster. The villain not being a seducing count in a cape, I had never paid attention to the first (in this case, the only) couple in the story.

Their love is strong - but it’s also doomed. “Evil Spirits” follows Jonathan through the Carpathians and makes it clear that it’s his blasé attitude that opens the door to the tragedy we already know is coming. This is another good point. Jonathan is not simply a victim of fate. He takes his happiness for granted and pays the price for it.

“My darling, my darling, I'm coming to Bremen,” the song that brings both Nosferatu and Jonathan to a plague stricken town, is the logical consequence.  This is one track that manages to add depth to what is shown on screen. The two traveler’s paths are different, but their trip is the same. Coming for Nina are her fiancé’s loving kisses, but also the vampire’s death kiss.

In the end, it’s Nina who must put an end to the curse. And here our twenty-something speaks her heart. She is ready to die for his love, but soon later she sings “I don’t want to die.” “Die, die, die” repeats the chorus, the drum heavily beating to her cries, but now they’re not for Nina’s death - they are for the vampire’s. His destruction echoes her sacrifice, and their song is the same. The finale, “Everyone loves a happy ending,” is a sarcastic conclusion on an ending that is not happy for anyone. It’s the end of life, it’s the end of love.

Of course there are failures. The narrator, Plum Green, reads the title cards with an excessively solemn voice, maybe in order to clearly establish a separation between the original text and the new lyrics. The result here, though, is that she sounds mocking. The piano sometimes gives in to sound-scoring clichés in an attempt to build a dramatic mood. But those problems are easily forgiven.

In the end, Nosferatu, the music, works finely with Nosferatu, the movie, with a result that is more than the sum of the parts and makes it worth watching two versions of the same story complete themselves. Give it a try.

Here is the original film:

And here is Transit of Venus's album, which you can watch over the muted film:

By Marcos Faria