Excerpted from 'The Restoration of WINGS (1927): The Loudest Silent Movie I've Ever Seen'
After seeing WINGS live at Film Forum and watching both versions (orchestral and organ score) on the Blu-ray, I saw it again recently at the (relatively) new Brooklyn gastro-theater Nitehawk Cinema with live accompaniment by Bradford Reed (from the avant-garde band King Missile) and Geoff Gersh.
-Will McKinley, Cinematically Insane blog
When I first heard of the screening, I wondered (on Twitter) how Reed and Gersh would "accompany" a film with a soundtrack. The Nitehawk account quickly replied to my tweet: "Our live music presentation for WINGS features the bands' own score, recorded score will be muted when needed."
Having seen the live performance, I can report that this explanation was not entirely accurate. The duo did perform their own live score, flanking the screen in the small auditorium, with Gersh on electric guitar and Reed on percussion and a homemade string instrument he calls a pencilina. But no portion of the restored soundtrack was used at any time. This was a relief, because I feared that imprecise integration would be distracting.
In fact, I found this accompaniment to be far less distracting, because of the lack of literal sound effects. The early sequence of the film, before the characters go off to a war from which not all will return, was mournful and portentous, in brilliant juxtaposition to the youthful glee Wellman establishes in the performances. In contrast, the enlistment and training sequence was upbeat and driven by martial snare drums, reflecting the enthusiasm of the young men as they begin the journey of heroes. The battle sequences were striking, with hard drum hits and musical cacophony perfectly illustrating explosions and the madness of battle.
Paramount and Ben Burtt may not be happy to hear this, but Reed and Gersh's live performance was the best WINGS accompaniment I've heard yet. With the powerful performances and majestic staging allowed to re-take center stage, I found myself moved in a way that I have not been by other versions. And the live nature of the sound made it feel far more like an actual silent film experience than any digital effects track ever will.
I don't know if Reed and Gersh will be accompanying the film elsewhere, but if they do, and you have a chance to see it, you should go. As I sat there watching Reed bang on bells, smack a snare and twang the strings of his pencilina all at the same time, I thought to myself, "I bet William Wellman would love this."