Retro 'Metropolis:' Boston Trio Re-Scores A Sci-Fi Classic

Download Audio
Left to right, Alloy Orchestra's Terry Donahue, Ken Winokur and Roger Miller (Courtesy)
Left to right, Alloy Orchestra's Terry Donahue, Ken Winokur and Roger Miller (Courtesy)

This weekend in Hollywood, a group of Boston musicians will experience a moment of truth.

Alloy Orchestra
has been writing silent film scores for 20 years. "Metropolis," German director Fritz Lang's 1927 sci-fi classic, was the group's first.

On Sunday a newly restored print of "Metropolis" — featuring long lost footage — is having its U.S. premiere at the Turner Classic Movie Festival. And Alloy will be there too, playing new music they've written to go along with film at the historic screening.

The premiere will take place at the famous Graumann's Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles, and the festival audience just might be the largest the Alloy has ever seen.

The three-member band — there are only three in this unconventional orchestra — wrote a score for "Metropolis" more than a decade ago. For the upcoming premiere, they have been charged with reworking that music and coming up with new material.

Since February, we've followed the Alloy through their creative, collaborative process to bring music to this new, old footage.

The Beginning

In the Alloy's Cambridge practice space, keyboardist Roger Miller said hello to an old friend.

"Here's where the robot comes in!" he exclaimed as he clicked on the keys.

Members of the Alloy know the iconic female robot in "Metropolis" better than almost anyone. The band has played its score for the German sci-fi classic at about 500 screenings of the film.

Alloy Orchestra Scores 'Metropolis'

"Metropolis has been the holy grail for silent film people forever, you know," explained Alloy percussionist and director Ken Winokur. "It's been, essentially, a lost masterpiece."

German director Fritz Lang edited five different versions of "Metropolis," and restorations over the years have been choppy and incomplete. A 2008 discovery of a complete 16-millimeter film print in Argentina was big news for film historians and lovers of classic cinema, Winokur included.

"We've had it in forms that are of course entertaining but never one that you felt like this is the whole thing," Winokur said. "So to have this film, which is certainly the best known and certainly the most popular silent film, back together in its entirety is making people go nuts."

Scoring The Old, For The First Time

The band begins by watching the new print on DVD. They're looking for new scenes. Winokur pointed to the screen.

"So this is an example of the new footage. And as you can see it doesn't have the sharpness and clarity and it's all scratched up," Winokur said.

Then, percussionist Terry Donahue suggested re-working music for an old scene where oppressed workers descend into the bowels of Metropolis.

"So instead of chugging along in the march like we had been doing, the mood changes, now we're underground. So instead of a 'dun-dun-dun' it's more like, 'daaaah, daaahh.' "

Keyboardist Miller is in charge of working out larger themes and melodies, and he's skeptical.

But the musicians tease it out, going back and forth, experimenting with tempo and color.

In the end, the proposed changes get shot down, but it doesn't faze the musicians. They have a deadline.

Alloy Orchestra plays a lot of junk. Its use of old truck springs, plumbing pipes and bedpans explains the name.

They wouldn't have that deadline if it weren't for Bill Pence. He's a professor of film at Dartmouth College, and former director of the Telluride Film Festival. Pence pushed for the Alloy Orchestra to get the gig at the TCM festival.

"The Alloy Orchestra is different because they connect the past of silent film, with total respect for it, to the present day," Pence explained. "And they do it with the most unusual instruments."

Alloy plays a lot of junk. Its use of old truck springs, plumbing pipes and bedpans explains the name. They also play instruments you'd expect to hear in a silent film band — accordion, clarinet and an array of drums.

Pence says Alloy's unconventional approach helped make silent films popular again in the 1990s. For that, film historians like himself are grateful. But some purists prefer to see "Metropolis" with it's original score from 1927.

In fact, the Turner Classic Film Festival could have chosen to feature that score instead of the Alloy's, according to Donald Kim, head of Kino International, the company that distributes "Metropolis" in America.

"People running the show at Turner love the Alloy Orchestra, and that's all they wanted," Kim said.

But the people handling the film's painstaking, year-long restoration in Germany wanted the original score for the January premiere in Berlin. They also insisted it be included with the upcoming DVD of "The Complete Metropolis." Kino will release that with much fanfare in November. The Alloy Orchestra hopes Kim will agree to add their score as a special feature.

"We're considering that," Kim said.

Back In The Studio

With weeks to go until the big night, the Alloy musicians gather after writing a new theme for character who is more fleshed out in the new print than in the original. He's a spy known as "The Thin Man."

"We call him Lurch," Winokur said with a grin. "He's super tall and he's this rigid, expressionless guy. He's very creepy. He's the best new thing in the new version of the film."

At this point, the musicians have written nearly everything, but Miller warns there's still plenty more work to tackle.

"The moment of truth is when you can play it from start to finish and you're happy with everything," Miller said, adding, "hopefully that comes about two days before the performance, and not two days after the performance."

Days before leaving for California, and the big premiere at Grauman's, each musician gives his final word on this weekend's premiere of the most famous, most expensive, probably most beloved silent film ever made.

Miller, who's been pretty laid back through the process, admits, "You know, it is pretty special. It all adds up to having a little more wump than usual."

Donahue adds, "It's an historic event."

And Winokur says, "We've always found a way of pulling off a good an entertaining show, so we're really prepared this time, we're ready to go and we don't care what happens out there, we're going to knock 'em dead. 'Cause the show must go on."

This program aired on April 23, 2010.

Headshot of Andrea Shea

Andrea Shea Correspondent, Arts & Culture
Andrea Shea is a correspondent for WBUR's arts & culture reporter.



More from WBUR

Listen Live