Antonio Sanchez brings ‘Birdman’ live score to Hoyt Sherman3/1/2017
Michael Keaton is the star of Alejandro Inarritu’s 2014 film “Birdman.” But during the course of the two-hour film, it becomes increasingly clear that that most important co-star isn’t Edward Norton, Emma Stone or Naomi Watts — it’s Antonio Sanchez’s drum score. It’s an ever-present force, amping up tensions setting the rhythm for each scene.
This month, the Des Moines Film Society is bringing Sanchez to Hoyt Sherman Place to perform the film’s score live, accompanying the film.
Sanchez grew up listening to Inarritu when the director worked as a Mexico City DJ in the 1980s. In 2005, Sanchez was drumming for Pat Metheny, and the drummer and director connected at a Los Angeles after party. They stayed in contact, and one day, Inarritu told Sanchez he wanted a drums-only score for a dark comedy he was working on.
“He was the one who knew he wanted drums, so it’s not like I had a blank canvas to do whatever I wanted,” Sanchez said during a phone interview. “My first instinct was to compose rhythmic themes for each of the main characters, so there would be a frantic theme, a more peaceful theme, and so on, approaching it from that standpoint.
“I sent him the demos, and Alejandro told me he wanted it very organic and spur of the moment. Jazzy. When he said that, I realized he wanted me to improvise. Since there was no movie for me to look at yet, I worked off the script and would improvise as we both imagined the theme.”
Sanchez had to take multiple passes at the material, changing the sound of his drumming to fit Innaritu’s vision. The director dubbed the first round of demos too clean and crisp, telling Sanchez he wanted it to sound like drums that had been in storage of a Broadway theater for years. Dirtier and older sounding.
During the last two years, Sanchez has performed live accompaniment of “Birdman” on a regular basis. Each one follows Inarritu’s improvisational desire for the sound.
“It’s always fun, because I improvise the whole thing but try to keep the dramatic effect intact,” Sanchez said. “Every audience experiences something different — that’s part of what’s cool. In the parts with the classical music, I just leave the film alone, sit back and enjoy the movie with the rest of the audience.”
Sanchez earned a Golden Globe nomination for his work on “Birdman,” but those classical cues cost the musician a chance at an Academy Award. “Birdman” received nine nominations and won four awards including Best Picture, but Sanchez was not among the nominees.
That’s because the amount of classical music in the film meant Sanchez’s work was ineligible for a nomination.
“It just seems to me that the drums were targeted. Like, this should not be, because this is not real music according to the Academy,” Sanchez said. “Alejandro’s next film, ‘The Revenant,’ was also eliminated because there was more than one composer (Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto). That rule is really strange to me, because when a film wins for wardrobe or production, three or four people get an Oscar, but a composer can never win with someone else. I think there are some obsolete rules that need to change.”
Sanchez is currently at work on a solo album, made by improvising with drums and adding electronic music over it. The drummer compares it to soundscapes or “vibes” rather than songs. He also has a collaborative big band album coming out with Vince Mendoza and will be touring with Metheny and his own band, Migration. In addition to that, he’s scoring an MGM TV series that should debut this summer.
“Between all that stuff, there’s barely any time to breathe,” Sanchez said. “But it’s fun; this is what I want to be doing.” ♦