Miracle on 34th Street
(Kansas Smitty’s film score livestreamed 24 December HERE. Review by Leah Williams)
The much-loved and irrepressible Kansas Smitty’s band continue to be hugely creative with online formats: just one of their plans to celebrate Christmas 2020 in style – their very own, unique style that is – and to help wipe away our collective 2020 blues has been to play live to the classic 1940s Christmas movie Miracle on 34th Street.
The new score is entirely their own conception, with themes composed in advance by clarinettist and saxophonist Giacomo Smith and pianist Kit Downes and brought to life in a live play-through alongside guitarist Dave Archer, bassist Ferg Ireland and drummer Will Cleasby.
In his pre-recorded introduction, Smith invites everyone to enjoy “all the glitz and glamour of 1940s New York and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade [with some] Kansas Smitty’s 2020 over the top of it”. It’s a nice idea, but how does it work in practice?
Well, it took some time to relax into this. Feeling braced for something quite contrasting and perhaps even jarring, it is in fact the simple, opening ascension of soft piano notes that is surprising; its almost era-appropriate sound wouldn’t feel amiss in the original score. However, seconds later, as drum whispers and guitar arrive, it quickly tips towards the 21st century end of the scale.
As the kindly face of old Kris Kringle comes into view and the music continues to build, a feeling of simultaneous discomfort and excitement sets in as ears and eyes start battling one another. This continues for the first 15 minutes or so, with only sporadic use of the original speech and sound design allowing the music to dominate but resulting in difficulty engaging with the storyline or finding that suspension of reality (which film scores generally aim to promote rather than disrupt). As the Thanksgiving parade gets into full swing and a marching band comes into view, it’s difficult not to find oneself longing to hear the missing street sounds and to really feel the atmosphere of the scene.
However, as the film goes on, it feels as though the band, the music and the placement of that music really begins to settle, as though as the players themselves start to become immersed in the story, their playing in turn becoming more reflective and intuitive.
From this comes some really wonderful scoring where the music enhances the on-screen action, more closely following the story progression in pace, complexity and ambience.
Mr Kringle’s key moments are particular highlights. The essence of his character is not just respected but reimagined and deepened. The quintessential mix of unwaveringly wholesome, caring and whip smart is combined with a cheekiness and a new stylish edge and gravitas thanks to Kansas Smitty’s music. Take, as an example, Kringle’s psychological assessment where he runs circles around the severe Mr Sawyer accompanied by jaunty percussion rhythms and smooth saxophone lines [34’] or the later standoff between the two same characters where the frustration and tension is equally well established by the music [55’40].
Another scene where the music really elevates the underlying emotions and messages of the film includes the gentle flurrying and dreamy wandering of Smith’s clarinet playing low trills as Santa helps young Susan to awaken her imagination [41’50]. The languorous meanderings of the various instruments here all create an elegantly inspiring atmosphere, switching just as expertly to a more uptempo, playful mode to accompany the following bustling Christmas scenes.
Moments where the inclusion, and absence, of music is very well chosen include the scene where Susan meets Santa for the first time [23′], which is totally void of any musical distraction, and its marked re-entry as Susan sees Santa talking in Dutch to a little orphan girl (a real heartstring-puller). Both choices enhance the magic of the moment – as only the best supporting film score can do. And there are a few excellent punctuations where short excerpts of music stand alone to support key moments in the story – such as the slightly disconcerting tinkling of the piano as Mrs Walker realises the Santa Claus she’s hired may in fact believe himself to be the real Santa [27’30].
Elsewhere, there are occasional emergences of music that can feel as though it’s simply for music’s sake (perhaps understandably a band not so used to holding back when inspiration hits?), which interrupted the fictional reverie – but then, that is bound to be the case with this kind of juxtaposition, and perhaps it was even the intention at moments. That said, the playing throughout delivers plenty of whimsy, imagination and quirky melodic ideas.
This is a fun Christmas experience, with the excuse to watch a classic film a gift in itself. It was certainly interesting (if a little terrifying) to see how the messaging of this 1940s film – the fear of commercialism and a society whose pace continues to increase at an unsustainable rate, where the detestable Sawyers of the world get ahead while the compassionate Kris Kringles have their integrity challenged – still stands today.
These final thoughts, accompanied by the closing music – where the ear even seems to detect the hint of a stylishly deconstructed Ding Dong Merrily on High? – actually makes the joining of 2020 jazz with this golden era movie seem all the more appropriate.
The band is asking for suggestions for the next live score to be given the Kansas Smitty’s treatment: so why not get in touch?
LINKS: Watch the film with new score accompaniment on Kansas Smitty’s website
Support the band on their Patreon page to watch them play live alongside the film
Categories: Livestream Review
Leave a Reply