Fritz Lang’s silent movie Metropolis gets new Tom Teasley percussive score (review)

In Constellation Theatre Company’s screeningof Metropolis, Tom Teasley’s live music breathes new life into the 89-year-old classic.

Every production in Constellation’s 10th season will feature live music, but this production takes that idea and runs with it. A Constellation collaborator since The Arabian Nights in their first season, Tom Teasley provides a live and partially improvised musical accompaniment to Fritz Lang’s classic sci-fi silent movie, Metropolis.

Percussionist Tom Teasley accompanying silent film Metropolis (Photo: Daniel Schwartz)

Percussionist Tom Teasley accompanying silent film Metropolis (Photo: Daniel Schwartz)

As opposed to the piano accompaniment one associates with silent movies, Teasley brings an astounding collection of percussion and digital instruments into play. Ranging from a cowbell with  a kickstand and an Iraqi frame drum (which he learned to play while serving with the State Department as a cultural envoy) on the traditional side, and a Roland HandSonic and a Kaossilator on the bleeding edge. It is normal to see him playing two instruments at once as a track he recorded earlier in the performance keeps playing.

It is easy to see how the dichotomy of old and new in Teasley’s music reflects that same dichotomy on screen, be it the dated visions of distant 2026 A.D. (When biplanes will soar around elevated trains and packed highways will roar with cars going at least 30 mph, it seems) or the story’s struggle of man versus machine (A much more timeless contribution).

The trailer below has the original score to the 1927 film Metropolis. Percussionist has re-imagined it with a live original score.

The 1927 film itself is astounding. It is plain to see the ambition required to make a film so fantastical and grand almost a century ago. While you have seen larger crowds and more epic vistas thanks to modern day CGI and budgets, Lang successfully draws the audience into his world through masterful use of every trick available to him. Between Metropolis’s all-too-timely themes of man versus technology and the working class tricked into doing irreparable harm to a society that has forgotten them, now is an excellent time to return to the classic.

Brigitte Helm’s onscreen performance deserves particular praise. She plays both the saintly Maria and her demonic doppelganger, the Machine Man. Her deft physicality, which is vital to any appearance in a silent movie, keeps her dual roles clear, evoking adoration and reverence as Maria and a stomach-churning repulsion as she jerks and cackles as the villainous robot.

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metropolis-show
Metropolis
4stars
closes November 19, 2016
Details and tickets
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However, the film does bring with it this production’s greatest weakness. Famously, the original premiere was 153 minutes long, making it one of the first feature-length science fiction movies. However, much of the original film was lost. Until 2010, the leading restoration was only 118 minutes. After a miraculous discovery of the lost footage stored away in Argentina, a 148-minute restoration was released. Told in full detail, it is a moving quest of film historians fighting against time to preserve our shared history.

Constellation’s production uses a 55-minute cut.

That can be forgiven, keeping in mind the physical effort Teasley puts into his performance, but leaves the movie a little nonsensical at parts. Gone is the mad scientist’s motivation to betray the leader of the city. So too is the middle of the protagonist’s journey; one day he’s having a German impressionist fever dream about his new love-at-first-sight, the next he is climbing up a ladder with some other guy whose name and motivations we will never begin to guess, trying to escape a catastrophic flood.

Teasley makes good use of the extra time by proving an enlightening talkback about his music after the credit roll. His work defies genre and benefits from this short dive into the creator’s perspective to explain his process. Just hearing about his favorite toys fills the audience with a shared glee.

Teasley’s music makes a movie shot in the 1920s feel like a truly live performance. My only misgiving is that there isn’t more of it!

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Metropolis. Directed by Fritz Lang. Screenplay by Thea von Harbou and Fritz Lang. Based on Metropolis by Thea von Harbou. Starring Alfred Abel, Gustav Fröhlich, Rudolf Klein-Rogge, and Brigitte Helm. New score by Tom Teasley. Live musical performance by Tom Teasley. Produced by Constellation Theatre Company. Reviewed by Marshall Bradshaw.

Marshall Bradshaw About Marshall Bradshaw

Marshall Bradshaw is a DC-based critic, actor, and game designer. He spent his halcyon days performing Shakespeare and improv with the American University Rude Mechanicals and Elite Ballerina Corps, respectively. Since then, he has written for DC Theatre Scene and Washington City Paper, performed with St. Mark's Players and Fat & Greasy Citizens Brigade, and mounted an original American freeform LARP at MAGfest (Audience participation dialed up until the knob falls off!). You can find more of him on Twitter @dMarshallb

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