Brighton: Symphony of a City (2016)

Brighton: Symphony of a City/Symphonic Visions review: fascinating faces past and present

Are we in the midst of a City Symphony revival? As well as recent essayistic examples from Terence Davies and Mark Cousins we have had last year’s London Symphony, and in 2016, Brighton Festival commissioned another, which has been screened a handful of times around the country and is now out on DVD, and about to screen again in London and Brighton soon.

I’ve been keen to set my eyes on Brighton: Symphony of a City for a while, especially once I started hearing such good things about it. The DVD it is available on is called Symphonic Visions, and it is a showcase for the work of composer Ed Hughes. Alongside Brighton: Symphony of a City, directed by Lizzie Thynne, which is a whisker over 47 minutes long, there are four silent shorts featuring new scores by Hughes and Sky Giant (1942), a British Movietone film from the Imperial War Museum archive about the Arvo Lancaster Bomber.

The feature itself is a vibrant and engaging portrait of the famously bohemian city by the sea. The films keeps to the traditional dawn-to-dusk City Symphony structure, opening with some hardy early-morning swimmers and closing with fireworks. In between those two points, the workers, students, allotment-holders, shoppers, tarot readers, cabaret artists, protesters and coffee-sippers of Brighton are shown going about their daily business. Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927) is clearly the main inspirations, from the title to the structure and even some of choices of scene and setting. The film uses colour particularly well – even on a grey day, the hues are saturated enough that a jogger in hot-pink gear or even a bin lorry will pop out of the frame.

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The vibrancy of Brighton’s hippy side is well served by this, but the colour has another purpose. Brighton: Symphony of a City is not just a City Symphony but also a compilation film of sorts, with archive clips from Screen Archive South East merged inventively with the modern footage. These rich colours help, if not to cover the joins, create a sense of visual continuity. The archive footage is often introduced in inventive ways – pasted on to the big screen at Brighton train station or viewed through a beach visitor’s phone screen. It’s sweet to see Brighton old and new in the same film, although at first I assumed the extended sequence set as Brighton Pride was form the archive, but that seems not to be the case. Understandably, this film uses footage shot over several days to produce its day-in-the-life design.

It’s a thoroughly enjoyable exercise, and the fish-eye opening at the beach in particular looks really stunning. The film is not as formally elegant, or as editorialised, as London Symphony, but it is a little more intimate, and casual, with a greater emphasis on individual residents – there are far more faces here, and fascinating ones too. I really liked the student struggling to write her essay and the group of grey-haired, nattily dressed shoppers chatting on a street corner. One clever graphical cut switches our attention from a shirtless man raving in a record shop to a lecturer bopping about in front of his students as he demonstrates computer coding. It certainly fits Brighton’s groovy image to see the whole city dancing. Some of the characters shown have so much instant personality that I wanted to see more, to break the constraints of the City Symphony genre to follow them further and find out more about their lives, especially the couple who meet outside the bookshop, you’ll know why why you see that wistful glance through the window.

Brighton: Symphony of a City (2016)
Brighton: Symphony of a City (2016)

Ed Hughes’s score for a mid-size ensemble, and recorded by the Orchestra of Sound and Light, is just as colourful as the images on screen, too. I liked the trumpets heralding the morning, and few dissonant or experimental moments that reflected the grittiness and bustle of the urban environment. The film and music both fall into seven distinct movements and there is very impressive variety in pace, rhythm and txture across different scenes. It seems he was really inspired by the material, and the results are a joy. He has done excellent work on the shorts on the disc too – Alice in Wonderland (1903), A Trip to the Moon (1902, the black-and-white version), The Nose (1963) and Night Music, a montage of archive footage chosen by Hughes himself.

The DVD comes with an informative booklet featuring an essay on the music and on historical music for silent film in general by Mervyn Cooke and a piece by Thynne on the “bricolage” process of making the film.

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