Yes, Gary Lucas was in The Magic Band; although, to go by his most recent solo effort and debut for the Brooklyn-based Northern Spy label, Cinefantastique (buy it from Amazon), you’d hardly guess as much. Indeed, it’s only during his live rendition of the theme from Vertigo—some halfway through this lengthy but varied collection of cover songs from the movies—that he lets rip with the kind of guitar wig-outs with which he made his name as a member of Captain Beefheart‘s troupe in the early 1980s.
But as good as those final Beefheart records were (Doc at the Radar Station and Ice Cream for Crow completed the closing of Don Van Vliet‘s music career on a shockingly high note for this listener), that was three decades ago, and Lucas has done a lot more since, branching off from his Magic Band bandmates in the late ’80s into an itinerant solo career—through blues, folk, film scores and non-Western pop, and back to the Captain with Fast ‘N’ Bulbous—and forming the art/psych-rock group Gods and Monsters, via which he shepherded the early performing years of a certain Jeff Buckley.
However, let’s not get bogged down in defining Gary Lucas by the company he’s kept; that’s what his music is for. Cinefantastique documents a project that had its gestation as far back at 1989, with his soundtrack to 1920s silent film The Golem, but sprouted in earnest in 2009 with a slew of live solo guitar scores for classic flicks of the silent era, such as Tod Browning‘s The Unholy Three, Carl Dreyer‘s Vampyr and Abel Gance‘s J’accuse.
An excerpt from the last of these can be found among the 17 cuts (some live, most self-recorded) chosen for Cinefantastique, the bulk of which have Lucas paying tribute to world cinema—Hollywood included—with reverence. It’s much more a case of “here are some songs I love” rather than “here’s what I can do with them.” So for the most part we get relatively straight covers, starting with sprightly tunes from Jacques Tati comedies Mon Oncle and Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday. That light-hearted fingerpicking sets the tone for two Burt Bacharach tributes, transmuting the cheesy lushness of the Casino Royale theme (Tijuana Brass and all) into a gorgeous Spanish flamenco flutter, and bluegrassing up “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” in both cases unlocking the thorough tunefulness that makes Bacharach’s songbook so appealing.
Lucas’ take on “Bali H’ai” from Rodgers and Hammerstein‘s South Pacific has the first hint of anything other than the man and his guitar, with synth washes and shimmering effects colouring the picture. And that other great American musical maestro, George Gershwin, gets a look-in with an interpretation of “Our Love is Here to Stay” from An American in Paris; a personal one for Lucas, who played it at his father’s funeral. Both tunes bookend a jaunty pair, the opening title theme to Lucas’ score for the 1919 anti-war screed J’accuse (with Emi Ohi Resnick on accompanying fiddle) and a solo snippet from Bela Tarr‘s seven-hour meisterwerk Sátántangó.
A live medley of Bernard Herrmann‘s unimpeachable scores for Alfred Hitchcock‘s Vertigo and Psycho provides the appropriate playing ground for Lucas’ wanton chord-bending, which telegraphs those films’ unsettling visuals. It’s followed by another medley with a similar thematic connection, a ghostly blending of Nino Rota‘s score for Federico Fellini‘s Casanova into Krzysztof Komeda‘s “Lullaby” for Rosemary’s Baby. Lucas has a bit more fun with a section of his Latin-flavoured score to the Spanish language version of Dracula—famously filmed on the same sets as the Bela Lugosi classic, and widely considered its better—which plays on the sheer loopiness of the scenario, before he returns to more haunting sounds with his electric homage to Popol Vuh‘s astounding soundtrack for Werner Herzog‘s Aguirre, the Wrath of God.
But Cinefantastique is a celebration of music made to accompany visuals in all its forms, so as much as there’s room for a complete score to the surrealist short Entr’acte—a playful contrast to Erik Satie‘s original, hinting on blues and country, dusty Westerns and steamy noir, and cinema’s propensity to bold symbolism (no need to explain what snippets of “La Marsellaise” and Chopin‘s Funeral March are supposed to represent)—there’s space for a scrappy take on the Howdy Doody theme, a brief but sincere homage to Vince Guaraldi‘s “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” and a duo of heart-felt renditions from Sex and Lucia and Around the World in 80 Days. And it’s that celebratory aspect that really comes through here, marginalising most concerns over the album’s uneven recording quality (not that some studio time and a producer’s guiding hand wouldn’t help). The songs are the thing, and Gary Lucas interprets this eclectic collection with abiding love and infectious enthusiasm.
Stream four tracks from Cinefantastique: