Buster Keaton, please meet Merrill Garbus

April 25, 2012

Buster Keaton gets a beat courtesy of the tUnE-yArDs’ Merrill Garbus

Just about every year for the last number of years, the San Francisco International Film Festival has shown a silent film accompanied by contemporary musicians performing an original score.

Among others, the SFIFF has presented 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1916) with Stephin Merritt of Magnetic Fields, joined by Daniel Handler on accordion; The Lost World (1925) with the Cambodian pop group Dengue Fever; The Golem (1920) with Pixies front man Black Francis; The Phantom Carriage (1921) with the legendary Jonathan Richman; Street Angel (1928) with the alt rock American Music Club; Sunrise (1927) with Lambchop; and the Japanese silent, A Page of Madness (1926), with the indie band Superchunk.

Buster Keaton, please meet Merrill Garbus

Buster Keaton, please meet Merrill Garbus

For silent film fans not familiar with the band, tUnE-yArDs was one of the big break out acts of last year. The group’s 2011 album, w h o k i l l, as well as their singles “Bizness” and “Gangsta,” were praised as among the best of the year by the Guardian, Time magazine, and the New York Times as well as Rolling Stone, Spin, NME, Pitchfork, Paste and other publications. Earlier this year, the Village Voice‘s annual “Pazz and Jop” poll of critics named w h o k i l l the #1 album of 2011. Garbus has also been featured in non-music media like the New Yorker and Wired and on National Public Radio.

All that attention stems from tUnE-yArDs’ unusual sound as well as their “triumph of talent and hard work over industry machinery,” as one blog put it. Garbus, who has a background in theater, brings not only a sense of eccentric theatricality to her music but also an eclectic sense of physicality. Its primitive and childish, in the best sense, and constructed, in a good way.

Equipped with drums, her signature ukulele and various electronics, Garbus often establishes a song’s theme with a beat, plus a melody, plus a vocal track that she records live and then loops. She then takes those musical motifs and layers them, adding her own and others accompaniment. The results are often trippy, fun, frenzied songs that are conclusively satisfying even as they threaten all the while to careen out of control… just. like. a. Buster. Keaton. film.


The 55th San Francisco International Film Festival presentation of Merrill Garbus accompanying four Buster Keaton shorts takes place on Monday, April 23 at 8:00 pm at the Castro Theater in San Francisco. Tickets are $20 for SFFS members, $25 for the general public. The SFFS box office is open for SFFS members online at http://www.sffs.org and in person at SF Film Society Cinema (1746 Post Street in San Francisco).

The 55th San Francisco International Film Festival runs through May 3. More info at http://www.sffs.org/

Thomas Gladysz is a Bay Area arts journalist and early film buff, and the Director of the Louise Brooks Society, an internet-based archive and international fan club devoted to the silent film star. Gladysz has organized exhibits, contributed to books, appeared on television, and introduced the actress’s films around the world. 


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