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Roll film, cue music 

Festival features live film scores

Whether your ideal film score is the John Williams "emote-by-numbers" model, a Bernard Herrmann Psycho-tic bone-chiller, or one of Ennio Morricone's sun-blasted flavors, prepare to leave all preconceptions behind for the NoDa Film Festival's three-night Sound + Vision experience running Monday through Wednesday, March 24-26, at the Neighborhood Theatre.

Highlighted by a rare live score from art-punk legend Pere Ubu to Roger Corman's 1963 sci-fi classic The Man with X-Ray Eyes, the series also features live scores from local noise-sculptors Calabi Yau and free-music enthusiasts Tenspeed Orchestra on Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively.

In just their second full season -- previous NoDa Film Festivals have featured essential films from African-American and Asian cinema, French New Wave classics, animation shorts and Anime and a Charles Burnett retrospective -- organizers have pulled off a major coup landing Pere Ubu, who rarely perform what primary-Pere David Thomas calls their "under-scores."

Festival director Jeff Jackson had wanted Calabi Yau and Tenspeed Orchestra to score silent films, but Sound + Vision really took flight when one of the sponsors' personal connections to Pere Ubu panned out.

"I was thinking, 'I need a third band, who could we get?'" Jackson laughed. "That kicked the whole festival up a notch."

Led by the plain-spoken Thomas, Pere Ubu rose from the blank suburban terrain of Cleveland in the mid-'70s, inspired in part by local television legend Ghoulardi -- actually Ernie Anderson, father of film-maker Paul Anderson (There Will Be Blood, Boogie Nights) -- and the schlock-movie host's on-air antics. As Thomas wrote on the Pere Ubu Web site, "People were not tuning in to see the movie."

Ghoulardi inspired Thomas' take on The Man with X-Ray Eyes, which meshes original Pere Ubu music and dialogue with the film's original elements -- what Jackson calls something akin to performance art.

"By all accounts," said Jackson, "this is an ideal introduction to the band -- you don't even have to like them to appreciate the performance."

For Calabi Yau and Tenspeed Orchestra, two fiercely independent local groups, a certain amount of ceding control has come with the film-score territory. But letting someone else -- in this case the film -- do some of the driving has proven both challenging and rewarding.

"The film is definitely the conductor," said Brent Bagwell, who along with Tenspeed co-founder Ben Kennedy put together an eight-member ensemble to score Lotte Reiniger's The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926), the oldest surviving feature-length animated cartoon. "(The score) is way more composed and structured than I thought it would be ... there's just a couple places where we turn people loose, like 'this whole scene is going to be just percussion, do whatever you want.' But that'll wind up fairly structured as well."

The film's bizarre heritage -- a tale from 1001 Arabian Nights told with 6-foot cardboard cutout silhouettes through the prism of Weimar Germany's Expressionist art movement -- suggested to Tenspeed that their score eschew "diluted world music" tropes for a "malarial version of belly dancing music," said Bagwell.

For Calabi Yau, scoring surrealist shorts like Man Ray's The Starfish (1928) and Ballet Mecanique (1924) by Fernand Leger resulted in a similar role-reversal. Best known for their dense layers, propulsive beats and (seemingly) free-form attack, Robin Doermann said the trio accessed some of their kinder, gentler melodic side for Man Ray's water-y themes.

"It is weird," said Doermann, one of the band's two guitarists, "subjecting our music to the film rather than the other way around. It's different for us because we're always trying to do our own thing."

He added, however, one of the scores will likely be a percussion-driven "pummeling." All were still works in progress when we spoke in February before the band's West coast tour.

"We're flying by the seat of our pants," he said. "But that's kind of how we roll anyway. It takes us a long time to come up with stuff."

That suits Jackson fine. Three distinct bands, their vastly different scores, and classic underground films present an opportunity to highlight Charlotte's vibrant arts scene.

"I wanted to work with these bands because I think they're doing the most interesting stuff in Charlotte, but also because they're a big part of the underground DIY culture," Jackson said, drawing a parallel with the 70s' Cleveland scene that birthed Pere Ubu. "A lot of times people are just assuming that the audience in Charlotte isn't ready for something, but they're just being presumptuous."

Tickets for Pere Ubu are $10; the other nights are donation-oriented. For more information, go to: www.nodafilmfestival.org

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