[11 February 2009]
Darling Harbour and its smaller cousin Cockle Bay have long counted amongst my least favourite places in Sydney. Full of the superclubs that sprung up in the late ‘90s and have hobbled on ever since, the area is the domain of the strappy-heeled glamazon princesses and roid-addled clubber lads. It is the kind of place I try to avoid.
Only the promise of seeing a classic film like Enter The Dragon complete with live score could lure me down into these depths. I certainly wasn’t the only one, with what seemed like thousands braving one of the coldest summer nights on record to sit under a freeway overpass and stare at a giant screen that was floating on a barge in the middle of the bay. It was an impressive sight, with the lights of the south side of central business district twinkling on one side and the monorail emerging from behind the other side of the screen at regular intervals.
Proceedings began with some remarkably average short films. I should probably try to be more encouraging and supportive, but I just can’t muster the good will. At best the films were mediocre, at worst diabolically numbing. At regular intervals a pointedly good-natured guy would pop up on-screen to advertise some internet thingy, and my irritation increased exponentially each time he reappeared. By the time the film started I’d seen his smug face so many times that I would gladly have rigged up an exploding external hard-drive to have been done with him for good.
As the opening scene lit up the bay Karsh Kale and the MIDIval Punditz filled the floating stage beneath the screen. For the first quarter of an hour I wondered if John Cage had actually written the score, as no sounds were forthcoming. Then I noticed the accents and subtle instrumentation that were creeping in around the edges of the film, completely unobtrusively. I’ve seen films with a live score before, and almost invariably the music overwhelms the film completely. This was obviously going to be quite a different experience.
It wasn’t until the first action sequence that the score really came into it’s own. Suddenly there was no dialogue to compete with, other than the odd Bruce Lee squawk, and the traditional North Indian instruments ramped up alongside the more familiar synthesizers and drum loops of modern electronic music. The timing of the piece was perfect, and the overall effect so impressive that the crowd was moved to rapturous applause and hollering as the scene concluded.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of this performance was the group’s ability to meld the (very) old with the (almost) new, without ever coming across as trying too hard or being patronisingly orientalist. The music had a fresh, dynamic sound and, perhaps most importantly, the instruments sounded comfortable alongside one another, not at all competing for space in the mix.
The score was versatile enough to provide comic relief where necessary, grinding into some sexy-time-porn-disco when Williams (played to the hilt by Jim Kelly, who went on to star in a slew of martial arts-themed Blaxploitation movies) is introduced to the female “entertainment.” Incidentally, Williams is responsible for one of the funniest moments in ‘70s cinema when he delivers the line “Bullshit, Mr Han, man!” without even a hint of irony.
Enter The Dragon remains one of the seminal films of the 20th century, both for what it is and what was spawned in its wake. From Crouching Tiger to Family Guy, a great swathe of modern popular culture owes the film a remarkable debt. Karsh Kale and MIDIval Punditz have achieved quite a coup in managing to rebuild the soundtrack to such an iconic film without trampling on its memory, but rather enhancing and complementing it. It would probably be too much to hope that this project could culminate in a DVD release, but it certainly deserves one.