Le Hot Jazz
The third production of SF Opera Lab was the 2003 animated film by French-born filmmaker Sylvain Chomet, Les Triplettes de Belleville. What makes the film different from most filmic presentations is that the formidable score for the film was played live by a band of seven instrumentalists led by the composer Benoit Charest. The band, titled Le Terrible Orchestre de Belleville, is not connected to the Really Terrible Orchestra founded by Scottish novelist Alexander McCall Smith. Smith’s band of amateurs is in fact really terrible. The guys in Le Terrible Orchestre de Belleville rock. Seriously.
Song appears – one of the requisites of the SF Opera Lab – live with the lovely vocalist Doriane Faberg, and in the film in the form of the Triplets, three harmonizing jazz singers (Beatice Bonifassi, Lina Boudreau and Mari-Lou Gauthier), who are long past their glory days but who continue making music in bizarre and imaginative ways.
Although the wonderful score encompasses a number of musical styles, including a rendition of the opening Kyrie from Mozart’s Mass in C minor, the dominant pulse is that of the jazz that set Europe’s feet to tapping during the period between the World Wars. There is even a short animated tribute to Josephine Baker’s famous banana dance. (A rather modest version of the real thing can be found on YouTube. Shot at the Folies Bergére, the short film clip shows Baker shaking it up in banana mini skirt and a bra that was not a feature in the stage version.) The film includes a number of animated caricatures of celebrities of the period.
The film was nominated for an Academy Award, as were Charest and Chomet for the song “Belleville Rendez-vous,” which was a musical motif throughout the film.
The film is a quirky bit of French charm. There are even frogs for dinner. No kidding. The story begins when a young boy is given a dog and a bicycle by his grandmother who is his guardian. Years later, the boy, now a rather haggard- and ancient-looking adult, becomes a contestant in the Tour de France, only to be kidnapped along with two other cyclists during the race. The cyclists are spirited off to Belleville (clearly New York City) where they are meant to be the betting focus of a bunch of short-necked, large-shouldered thugs.
Grandma, however, has seen the kidnapping, and she and the dog Bruno set out to save their beloved boy, now man. Once in Belleville, they are saved from urban disaster by the three old girl singers who recognize a kindred soul in grandma’s rhythmic pinging on a bicycle wheel. With the Triplets help, everyone is saved and the evildoers done in.
The real star of the animation is Bruno the dog. Without him the film would have been trying at best. But his well-portrayed loyalty, shaky old-dog legs and big belly, fascination with barking at passing trains, profound interest in food and his black-and-white dreams of riding the trains add both compassion and humor to the story.
It was intriguing as well to watch the musicians, especially when playing the jazz improvisations of the Triplets. In their later years, the Triplets found their true calling as musicians of the everyday object, using a newspaper, refrigerator shelves, a vacuum cleaner and bicycle wheels as their instruments of choice. Watching the live musicians play these objects while stomping their feet and snapping their fingers to the animation above provided moments to savor.
– Jaime Robles
Photo: Benoit Charest and Le Terrible Orchestre de Belleville.