Known mostly for concise, brainy pop songs, Stephin Merritt might not be an obvious choice for soundtrack-composer extraordinaire, usually the territory of folks who have a 10-minutes-plus song on every album, use a bow on their guitars, are survivors of that whole electronica thing, or are named “Björk.” But the dude did write 69 Love Songs, so he obviously knows how to score. Turns out that’s not just a stupid pun, either: his musical accompaniment to the 1916 silent film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is one of the most impressive entries in Merritt’s long list of musical achievements. It’s also really fucking funny.
I got the chance to see Merritt perform 20,000 Leagues at one of my favorite places in Los Angeles, The Cinefamily, a non-profit cinematheque. Merritt, seated at a table with his back to the audience, was a paler version of the film’s star, techno-wizard Captain Nemo, utilizing gizmos of similar vintage as Nemo’s submarine to create effects from birdsong to sonar, entire electronic songs emerging from them. He also took on most of the vocal duties, and by that I don’t just mean singing — he inserted bits of dialogue, usually comedic, into the male characters’ mouths while the squeezebox player did the same for the ladies. Rounding out the quartet was a one-man brass section on tuba and flugelhorn and an organist, the requisite silent-film accompanist.
The piece was originally commissioned for the San Francisco International Film Festival, but it’s a perfect fit for The Cinefamily’s aesthetic, which gives the spotlight to films good and bad, sometimes on the same night. As a piece of filmmaking, 20,000 Leagues falls mostly in the latter category. The story’s an epic mess, mashing together not only the titular novel but also Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island and a postscript entirely the film’s own. The pacing is bizarre, cutting from scene to scene without logical reason. And there’s lots of blackface. But for audiences in 1916, the spectacle must have been unmatched. Director Stuart Patton, Michael Bay’s great-great spiritual granddaddy, stuffed 20,000 Leagues to bursting with exotic locations, elaborate sets, and special effects (which are believable even today), and, most impressively, costly (and lengthy) underwater sequences with submersibles, divers, sea life, and divers tussling with sea life outside of submersibles.
Working with a crummy-yet-interesting film is an ideal conceit for Merritt, and from the very beginning it’s clear he’s in on the joke. As the opening credits rolled, the quartet belted out a song that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Magnetic Fields release — serious, silly, and resigned to the fact that it sounds kind of dopey to rhyme “sea” with “me.” The fully formed songs dotting the score were definitely one of the highlights of the performance. Merritt’s voice sounded great harmonized live, and the lyrics were always hilarious. During a scene in which a stranded hot air balloonist attempts to get a sensual (for 1916), stubborn island girl to swap her leopard-skin dress for trousers and a button-down shirt, Merritt and his female-impersonator bandmate broke into a song that’s mostly, “I don’t wanna wear Pants!” “But you gotta wear pants!” “I don’t wanna wear pants!” “Everybody wears pants!” Personally, I almost pissed mine.
But it wasn’t just a night dedicated to musically mocking an old film. Merritt’s score may revel in 20,000 Leagues’ ridiculousness, but his jabs are unpredictable, his irony so layered that the humor actually helps make the film’s wonder accessible for contemporary audiences. In a way, it’s his trademark maneuver. There’s little way an album with a concept like 69 Love Songs could be interesting, let alone moving, if Merritt didn’t constantly acknowledge that love songs, even his, are usually pretty stupid. Similarly, with 20,000 Leagues, he’s laughing with you at the voyage of Captain Nemo and the other characters, and, most likely, he’s laughing first, getting it out of the way so the audience can move past the jokes.
And that’s where things get even more interesting. Flugelhorn, tuba, and squeezebox aren’t exactly known for their diversity of sound, but the quartet was impressively agile, switching easily from chamber pop to drunken Yann Tiersen to aggressive noise, holding its own during the long respites from lyrical ingenuity. More impressive, however, is how the score’s textural and compositional complexity lend the film a new, vastly improved sense of structure. Repetition, especially, is used to bend time, providing pacing in a film that has virtually none. Recurring themes and motifs provide a grid that organizes the unwieldy plot. And, during an insufferably long scene of nothing but underwater nature footage, a single electronic phrase hypnotically repeats with no variation, freezing time instead of dragging it out. Elsewhere, Merritt constructs dramatic crescendos where none previously existed. Grating noise intensifies a dramatic, albeit brief, scene in which the leopard-skin-wearing girl is nearly raped, but while the film cuts away immediately, the music continues through several shots that would otherwise have little drama. By sustaining the noise, Merritt ties unconnected images together; two men in metal diving masks clumsily emerging from the sea are transformed from awkward to weirdly sinister.
I could go on — Merritt’s score had much to say about what music can do to time and narrative. But if you go see it, you’ll most likely be paying more attention to how much fun you’re having. Consider this the director’s cut, with the exact same footage as the original. Who knew Merritt could be such a great filmmaker?