Familiarity with The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, the totem of German Expressionism, cannot dim its angular beauty, nor its power to baffle and tease. This luridly geometric film invites a wild accompaniment, one that will embrace its puzzles and schlocky plot twists, and so Caligari pops up time and again in repertory cinemas, with scores veering from rock to electronica to jazz and all points in between. Martyn Jacques of punk-cabaret adventurists The Tiger Lillies has answered the call, and his theatrical, seedy style couldn’t be more simpatico.
Jacques has set up a short residency in the West End’s Soho Theatre this summer, playing his Caligari score night after night in a basement cabaret bar that’s a few shades too salubrious for that sleazy Weimar vibe. The venue wins on atmosphere, then, but the downside of watching a film in a bar rather than a cinema becomes obvious the moment we clock that we’ll be a watching Caligari on DVD, projected a little wonkily at that.
But we’re here for the Martyn Jacques show, and I’m happy to squint and imagine his folksy-sinister piano-accordion-vocal score accompanying the real deal. If Jacques’ music can shine tonight, it will worthy of a showing that will please the projection purists too. And Jacques’ music does shine. He says that he was inspired to write his score by his childhood piano teacher, who worked as a film accompanist in the silent era, and clearly he was an observant pupil. Jacques’ piano proves nicely responsive to the film, turning, pausing, and marching when the film does. His punchy accordion, too, can screech with the high-strung horror of it all, or rumble along as a creepy echo of the fairground’s barrel organ. The occasional foot stomp adds drama, and acknowledges the fact that this is a musical, hummable score – the audience are nodding their heads, tapping their toes, as we go.
What’s really distinctive about Jacques’s score, though, is his vocal, which can switch between a low grumble and a rising falsetto. It’s dramatic, percussive and at its best, when quietly threatening, a low non-verbal bass line for the piano melody. Mostly, though, Jacques is singing his own colourful lyrics: a musical narration for the film that goes out of its way to introduce the carnival’s bit-part characters and to explore the fears and motivations of the film’s leading players.
Those lyrics are the score’s fatal flaw: often what Jacques is singing differs from what’s on screen in some small but important detail. His lyrics can clash with the intertitles, making the viewing experience anything but immersive. At worst his words can pre-empt the next plot twist, which sadly dissolves the horror-movie tension. Occasionally, the lyrics and the film are in different worlds altogether. At these times, one suspects this score to be in reality a rehearsal for a project such as Jacques’s hit grotesque operetta Shockheaded Peter. I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing, a cabaret Caligari with puppets? I think it could be a another smash, in Jacques’ hands.
As I said earlier, this is Martyn Jacques’ show, and while his Chaplin-death-mask makeup and fruity lyrics may threaten to steal the limelight from the movie, his fluid score reveals a real sensitivity to the art of silent film accompaniment. Perhaps he has his eyes on other horizons, but I’d be more than happy to hear another silent score from such an exuberant talent.
The Cabinet of Dr Caligari screens at the Soho Theatre in London until 11 August 2012. To find out more and to buy tickets, visit the Soho Theatre website.