The Age

Melbourne Festival 2016: The Triplets of Belleville composer Benoit Charest performs live score to ‘anti-Disney’ film

By:  Sonia Harford, October 12, 2016

“It’s very anti-Disney, there is no one good looking or cute.” That’s quite the sales pitch for a film, but bear in mind Benoit Charest’s first love is music not marketing.

The Triplets of Belleville is a gloriously oddball animation, adorned with superb songs that glitter like lights on the Seine and clatter like old cars on cobblestones. Not cartoon-cute, but delightfully grotesque are the three “stars” – lanky old divas singing with style in the tradition of 1930s jazz and French chansons.

Charest, a jazz guitarist and composer from Quebec, created the score for writer-director Sylvain Chomet’s 2003 film. With its swinging tempo and echoes of Josephine Baker, the score includes the Oscar-nominated tune Belleville Rendez-vous.

This week Charest will conduct and perform in two live performances of his musical score while the film screens. As captivating as the visual images might be, the musicians on stage also feel they’re getting their due.

“It’s a great way for people to notice the music in films,” says Charest. “And it’s a good vehicle for musicians to be able to play their music live given that record sales are almost dead now.”

Making the opportunities for Charest even richer, Belleville has barely any dialogue. Music creates mood, tone, emotion, far beyond the usual film backing track.

The show arrives on a wave of recent live performances of film scores. In another Melbourne Festival event a contemporary score from Philip Glass cloaked Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film La Belle et La Bete.

A composer also came to the fore following the success of the Oscar-winning Birdman. Antonio Sanchez’s live performances accompanied screenings around the world.

What sets Charest’s Belleville ensemble apart is the jaunty action on stage. The musicians do much more than a regular orchestra, with percussion working overtime – foot stomping, finger snapping and vocalists dancing to a frantic beat. So where to look? At the screen to follow the story, or at the live performers?

“People who’ve seen it tell me they phase in and out of giving their attention to the film or the musicians … it certainly is visual, we have to give a show too,” says Charest. “The thing is to find the right balance between being noticed or not being noticed.”

That’s a modest remark from a composer who worked closely with the film’s director; shifting between music and visual imagery to tell a winning tale of a dastardly deed and a stout-hearted woman with a loud whistle.

“The plot is basically a classic story of bad and good people and a chase,” says Charest. He revelled in its “anti-Disney” qualities. The old ladies live in poverty and gobble frogs. A champion cyclist is criminally thin. Villains abound and the texture of the film is, as one writer put it, “unclassifiable”.

“Movies today are all love stories with beautiful-looking people,” says Charest. “You never see a short fat bald guy fall in love with someone like Meryl Streep.”

Given Belleville didn’t buy into Hollywood’s commercial formula, he was surprised at its success. “It was never crafted or engineered to be successful. We all hope what we do has some kind of success because fundamentally we want to eat, pay our rent and get some recognition for what we do … but I find a lot of the art, film and music today is conceived too much with that goal of trying to be widely successful.”

Apart from his many film scores, Charest says it’s essential “to keep contact with live and improvised music”. He’ll also perform in two jazz gigs with a group and Peter Knight from the Australian Art Orchestra.

 

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