Animat - "Dark Star"

Prince Charles Cinema, London - 23 September 2012

"In several ways, Dark Star emerges a better film with Animat's new score"

[Live photo]Low budget 1974 SF comedy Dark Star is not only John Carpenter's first feature it is also the film that lends its initials to the 'ds' in dsoaudio. It's not a short story. Suffice it to say that John Carpenter has had a big influence on my life. Dark Star is something of a cult classic, not too ridiculously described as the missing link between 2001: A Space Odyssey and Red Dwarf. Theatrical screenings of the film are pretty rare in the UK, but the increasingly rewarding independent Prince Charles Cinema in London's West End included it recently as part of its repertory progamming. Whilst its true the cinema management has an affinity with Mr Carpenter's work (they had an all-nighter dedicated to him only last month), the driver for this evening's projection lay with electronica two-piece Animat. 

Animat have been touring their new score to the film around the UK's rep cinemas and the Prince Charles was a fitting venue for this London performance. Animat are musicians, producers and DJs Mark Daly and Michael Harding, who have five self-released EPs as well as two albums on the Big Chill label under their belts. This isn't the first time they've created a live film score, having previously tackled David Lynch's The Straight Story, Vincent Price sci-fi The Last Man on Earth and animated French charmer Belleville Rendezvous. Their approach, as they explained in their intro before the screening, was not an easy one. Instead of picking a silent film and simply slapping a new score on top (technically straightforward once the creative bit has been done), they chose a film of the modern era - complete with a soundtrack including dialogue and a memorable musical score. This introduces all kinds of technical challenges that are not easily overcome. 

In the past, some artists have shown films with soundtracks without the audio entirely - utilising subtitles and thus making the way clear for the performance of the new score. The advantages to the artist in performing their score live with this approach are immediately obvious. (Zan Lyons took this route with a score he wrote for Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, touring the results in 2003.) But for the viewer, if you are a fan of the film, then not being able to hear any of the dialogue or ambient sounds can be a terminal shortcoming. The alternative solution is by some way the most difficult, both in terms of stripping out the original soundtrack layer from the audio (assuming this is even possible - dependent upon the source copy of the film), and then fitting in the new score in-between the character dialogue and any other sound effects.

[Live photo]I still vividly recall a performance of a Philip Glass score for Tod Browning's 1931 Dracula (a concept that still gets me salivating just at the thought of the potential) which used the mixing-in new score with original dialogue technique. Disastrously, the live staging simultaneously ruined the original film and did no justice to Glass' composition. So, if masters like that cannot even always pull off the live presentation bit, you know the approach is fraught with pitfalls. So, as a big Carpenter fan and liking the Animat's music, I entered into this evening optimistic but fully aware that this might not turn out as I hoped. 

Having director Carpenter's approval (in a three-word email in reply to their request for his consent reading simply: "Go for it!") might have buoyed Animat but didn't make their task any easier. In spite of a few minor errors (largely due to the fact that this was mixed live, on the fly) this was an outstanding success. Moreover, Daly and Harding were not shy in firmly stamping their own take on the distinctly trippy atmosphere Carpenter sought to create with his film. Animat's approach was to quickly conclude (correctly) that what Carpenter was trying to pull off back in 1974 was a comedy/sci-fi/hippy/surfer movie. Which he did to a degree. However, with Animat's inspired, out-there score overlain this was even more the film Carpenter was originally aiming for. Thus, in several ways, Dark Star emerges a better film with Animat's new score. 

I should have known we were in safe hands when they inserted Fleetwood Mac's Albatross over the opening credits - it works perfectly. The baby lullaby cover version of The Beach Boys' God Only Knows that followed confirmed that wasn't a fluke. I could sit back, relax and enjoy to the full. To be fair, anyone who owns the official soundtrack to Dark Star knows there wasn't much to the original score, which is minimal and repetitive to say the least (the album running time padded out with snippets of choice character dialogue). Even removing the unforgettable Benson Arizona, a faux country and western tune composed and performed in part by Carpenter himself, and replacing it instead with another cue of Albatross was initially heresy but rapidly I realised was inspired. And so it continued in a similar vein.

Billy Preston's Outtaspace was used during part of the alien-chasing scene. Both of these released in the early 70s would have been around while Dark Star was filming. Hell, for all we know, Carpenter may have been listening to these on his stereo-gram to get in the right mood each morning before directing the cast. They certainly blend seamlessly. True to Animat's DJ origins, tunes by electronica artists Input Junkie and Minke are also worked in. The result creates a whole new experience, at once deferential without ever becoming fawning. Animat have perfectly captured the tone Carpenter was going for, making this a must-see for fans of the film and newcomers alike. 8/10

Rob Dyer