Used to be that the music accompanying films before the sound era was secondary to the film--no one was really heading to the theater to see the guy on the piano or organ in the corner. But we all know a movie is nothing without its music.
The Devil Music Ensemble's idea, then, is brilliant: They perform live soundtracks to old films like Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde using modern instruments. They let the film be the focus, but really, everyone is there for the music--it's live music with the inspiration on display, a multimedia show that reinterprets the old into something new.
At the Rialto Theatre Sunday night, the movie screen was onstage, while the three members of the Ensemble were set up on the floor, facing the screen--it is, after all, their conductor. Jonah Rapino (violin and vibraphone) welcomed the audience; drummer Tim Nylander got the projector running, and Brendon Wood's guitar emitted spooky reverbed notes as the opening credits began to roll.
Normally, when old movies are given updated music, it can't help but be anachronistic, but the Devil Music Ensemble manages to make their electrified accompaniment enhance the film in ways 1920s-era moviegoers could only imagine. Knocks on doors and Mr. Hyde's whacks with his cane are heard on the drums; when Dr. Jekyll first makes his transformation into Mr. Hyde, and John Barrymore contorts and convulses, the guitar contorts and convulses as well. The violin haunts and saturates the film with drama, and the guitar picks up and leaves off on melodies and effects to match the subtle changes of mood in the film. Even when the color tones on screen change from sepia (to represent Hyde's seedy nightclub haunts) to blue (the cold, unfeeling outside world) to grayscale (the calm domestic interiors), the music follows.
The Ensemble is so perfectly synchronized with the film that you almost forget the music is being performed live right in front of you, and you can't imagine any other soundtrack that would pick up on the film's textures so perfectly. Things that would seem silly to a contemporary filmgoer are given new credibility--somehow, the tinkling percussion whenever Millicent, Dr. Jekyll's love interest, is in the room, complicates her melodramatic sighs and pursed lips. Even though everyone's there for the music, the music puts the focus right back on the film.