Melody After The Méliès
The first time I tried to watch Martin Scorcese’s Hugo I did so on an aircraft, on the piddly little screen on the back of the seat in front of mine in the economy section. Bad decision. Hugo is Scorcese’s first film shot in 3D and a tiny screen in the cramped confines of an airline seat does it no justice.
It was, indeed, so frustrating that I gave up on Hugo that first time. The second time I tried watching Hugo was at home, on a larger screen with better sound but still not in 3D. Nonetheless, I watched the entire film this time and enjoyed it thoroughly.
But this is not about Hugo, the film. At the core of Scorcese’s film is the story of Papa Georges, the part played by Ben Kingsley. Papa Georges, in fact, is a character based on Georges Méliès, the French illusionist and film-maker who is considered to be among the pioneers that developed narrative film-making, special effects and hand colouring of films. Méliès, who died in 1938 at the age of 76, made hundreds of films but towards the end of his career he went bankrupt and himself destroyed most of the negatives of his films. A few negatives were saved and, in the plot of Scorcese’s Hugo, the screening of one of the films that survived leads to Méliès being eventually rediscovered and going on to be celebrated once again.
Late last year, a few of Méliès’s films in their restored versions were released on DVD. I had read somewhere that 200 of his 531 films are still around and most of them are restored and available on DVD. The story of Méliès is fascinating and, had it not been for Scorcese’s fabulous film, I’d have remained ignorant about him and his work. So you can imagine my excitement when I received in the mail a package containing a vinyl album entitled Le Voyage Dans La Lune. The package was from Virgin Records and the album was by the French electronica music duo named Air.
The album is inspired by Méliès’s film of the same name, the restored version for which the duo has composed an original score. The vinyl came with a bonus, a DVD of the colourised version of the 16-minute Méliès film with Air’s soundtrack. Méliès’s film is a sci-fi story about a bunch of madcap scientists blasting themselves off to the moon and their adventures and perils once they land there. The bonus DVD version is hand coloured and restored and is, unlike the original, not silent, of course. Air’s electronica fits the funny-sad short film like a glove I thought, although one of my co-watchers, a third-grader, felt it would have been better if it was in its original silent version. To each her own, I guess.
On the full-length vinyl, Air’s Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Duncke have done a brilliant job that would appeal to both electronica fans as well as sci-fi aficionados equally. Air’s music harks back to the electronica sounds of the 1970s—you can hear influences of Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream and even Pink Floyd. But, also, and here’s what sets them apart from other electronica bands, you can also hear melodies and lyrics and the influence of singers such as the late Serge Gainsbourg.
I hadn’t heard much of Air’s music in the last several years—the only full album of theirs that I remember is their debut album, Moon Safari, which came out in the late 1990s and it had struck me as being more electronic pop than anything experimental. Electronica, I must admit, is not my genre of listening choice, so I’d not really gone out seeking more of Air’s music. But I’d, not-so-long-ago, also heard some songs from their 2004 album Walkie Talkie, which had a track named Alone In Kyoto that the duo had composed for Sofia Coppola’s film, Lost In Translation, and another track, Universal Traveler. I’d liked both but not obsessively. They rested somewhere in an iPod and were certainly not my go-to tracks.
But after watching Le Voyage and listening to the album, I explored and found more from Air. Such as So Light is Her Footfall, a gentle song but one that is best experienced via a superb black and white video by the French film-maker Edouard Salier. I’d recommend checking it out as well as Salier’s other music videos.
Air makes spacey, trippy music but there is a melodic infusion to it that is at once also calming. In addition to the synths and sfx, there are basslines, percussions and tunes, including lyrics, that make their music not just accessible to but enjoyable for even non-electronica Luddites such as me. But, do try listening to the Air score for Méliès’s film while watching that otherwise silent film. Perhaps then you’ll enjoy their music more.
On my last visit to The Steam Engine, I picked up a recording of Wilco’s July 8 concert in Illinois, a March 19 concert by The Black Keys, a June 26 concert by My Morning Jacket and, just for old times’ sake, a 1989 Neil Young Concert at the Jones Beach Ampitheater in Wantagh, NY. All for free.
The Steam Engine is a website where gigs by an astonishing number of musicians and bands are available for free and legally so. True, not all of The Steam Engine’s recordings would get five stars for quality—many of them are audience recordings—but it’s a treasure trove worth exploring. Head to The Treasury section to see who from the A to Z of bands you can get absolutely gratis.