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GARY LUCAS plays THE GOLEM:

Review of the famous modern silent film score, finally on DVD


A review by David Gasten
December 28, 2010

Gary Lucas Plays The Golem.  Score for German silent The Golem (UFA, 1920, directed by and starring Paul Wegener) composed in 1989 by Gary Lucas and Walter Horn for guitar, effects, and keyboards. Total running time approx. 68 minutes.  Full movie with score released on DVD in 2008.  

Gary Lucas Plays The Golem
is available on DVD (NTSC format) exclusively from Gary Lucas’ official website for $25.00 US and comes autographed by Lucas.

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In memory of Don Van Vliet  
aka Captain Beefheart, who passed away while this article was being prepared.

 Gary Lucas Plays The Golem DVD

 

Gary Lucas Plays The Golem title card

(Photo by Miguel Vallinas Prieto)

Composer and guitarist Gary Lucas is famous as the co-author and performer of Gary Lucas Plays The Golem, a modern silent film soundtrack performed to the influential German expressionist movie The Golem (1920). Originally conceived and co-written in 1989 with Lucas’ childhood friend, keyboardist Walter Horn, Lucas’ Gary Lucas Plays The Golem has played longer and toured more than almost any other modern, non-traditional silent movie soundtrack, and has become a dominating force in Lucas’ career.  Gary Lucas Plays The Golem has played in at least fifteen countries in the world, and because of the movie’s Jewish subject matter, the film has played in many Jewish film festivals and events, including some in Israel.

When the author was working on the ill-fated commission An Introduction to Modern Music in the Silent Film in 2001, Lucas was one of several artists kind enough to assist with material and information.  However, Gary Lucas Plays The Golem was not yet available on video, so the author was therefore unable to say much about it at the time. The actual film version of Gary Lucas Plays The Golem was not released on DVD until in 2008, so it’s been a long time coming. Here's a look at how the soundtrack works with the film, followed by more info on Gary Lucas' career.
 

A Walk Through Gary Lucas Plays The Golem

Gary Lucas Plays The Golem goes back and forth between atmospheric, effects-laden “space pieces”, and rootsy solo guitar pieces.  The pieces tend to underscore overall themes in the movie, and have an unstoppable freight train-like momentum to them.  Lucas uses an overall good-quality print of the movie that looks like a heavily-tinted restoration print with inserted intertitles taken from a public domain print; the heavy tints work to give the movie a slightly psychedelic feel that compliments the modern soundtrack quite well.

Oh my word. The conjuring of the evil spirit in Gary Lucas Plays The Golem (shown here) is one of the most powerful silent movie scenes I've ever watched. Watch when the disembodied head of the spirit appears at :11--yikes!

The spacey pieces work the best within the context of the movie.  The two most memorable scenes are the opening sequences where Rabbi Loew foresees doom in the stars, and the summoning of the evil spirit Astaroth to give the secret word that will animate the clay Golem figure.  Both scenes are just gripping and terrifying to watch thanks to the doom-laden star music that lets you know in no uncertain terms that the celestial forces demand blood.

The first fifteen minutes of the film roll along well, with the doom space effects rolling forward like a storm on the horizon that is destroying everything in its wake.  This is initially counterbalanced by some guitar work that fits the more intimate, focused parts of the action well.  The use of the tune of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” theme to announce the decree that the Jews are being forced out of the feudal state brings to mind Hitler’s love for Wagner, and therefore the similar way that the Jews were treated in Nazi Germany.  So far so good. However, problems start to arise when Rabbi Loew’s daughter meets Knight Florian, the bearer of the decree, and they fall for each other.  This romantic substory begins to intertwine with the creation of the Golem underground.  At this point Lucas rolls a guitar solo over all of this action that completely ignores both the romantic subplot and the continuing terror of the formation of the Golem.  What I think would fit better here is a new “space piece” with a  “Beauty and the Beast” theme, with the romantic “Beauty” side being particularly sweet and heart-rending, and the “Beast” side representing a heartless monster that would be only happy to kill the Beauty if he knew she was there. The themes need to be easily interchangeable so that it would be easy to switch back and forth between the scenes. 

After this sequence is the conjuring of the demon Astaroth to bring the Golem to life.  This is easily the most chilling, gripping scene I’ve ever seen in a silent movie thanks to the monstrous and horrifying soundtrack that truly brings the evil in this scene to life.  The music covers the entire ceremony quite well—the striking of the Rabbi’s wand, the waving of the pentagram, the balls of fire that appear over the Rabbi and his assistant, the appearance of the evil spirit and its breathing of the secret word, and finally the firestorm of lightning that brings the scene crashing to a close. 

The Golem is initially employed as Rabbi Loew's servant, but the monster eventually turns on its master and the Jews that it was intended to protect.

Right after this, the music follows the actual animation of the Golem and reflects the sinister nature of this new life, the creature’s baby steps, and then its relatively harmless utilization as the Rabbi Loew’s servant.  No real complaints about any of this music, with the exception that the guitar adds reverb at the change from an exterior shot to the cathedral-like interior of the Loew home, but then forgets the change back when it returns to an exterior shot.

Now when we get to the Festival of the Roses, the music just about lost me.  The piece for this climactic scene is “all chaos, all the time”, which completely ruins the buildup of the impending destruction that unravels over the course of the scene. Again, the music rolls right over all the nuances when it doesn’t have to.  The music needs to be able to switch from celebratory music with ominous undertones to the terror and chaos as the partiers begin to meet their fate and back again until chaos finally takes over completely. So again, a piece with two interchangeable themes that can handle the back and forth nature of the storyline would be so much better here. 

The soundtrack does make a comeback after this scene, however. The creaky steel guitar solo, entitled “Go Go Golem”, fits the uneasy intimacy of Rabbi Loew and the Golem returning home and the Golem turning against him, building up as the tension between the two thickens, and following all the way through to the Rabbi’s victory against the Golem.  Next, the music successfully follows the sounding of the shofar (horn) and the happy excitement of the crowd in the streets, and includes a “Ride of the Valkyries” flourish that cleverly suggests that the Golem is now the new Tyrant out to kill the Jews.  The music follows through the resurrection of the Golem and the monster's invasion of the tryst between Florian and the Jewess that ends in the murder of Florian.  This theme of the murderous Golem is astonishingly powerful, especially when he smashes through the doors of the Jewess’ boudoir and throws Florian from the tower. However, the romantic subplot is ignored in the score yet again.  A return to the hypothetical  “Beauty and the Beast” piece recommended earlier would bring this out better.

Gary Lucas Plays The Golem portrait

Lucas poses with the dissolve from the Star of David to the face of The Golem, another gripping moment in Gary Lucas Plays The Golem
(Photo by Arjen Veldt)

The soundtrack’s Day of Reckoning continues from here, and for the most part works well, with the exception that the Golem’s new infatuation with the girl is ignored.  The soundtrack then returns to the creaky “Go Go Golem” motif, which I didn’t like at first, but now I’m starting to understand that it’s meant to show the “After the Storm—Tyrant Wins” quiet, and also create an intimate stopgap in the film.  I think that maybe if this reprise of “Go Go Golem” added some squeaking of the strings to show the scurry of the people out in the street, as well as some reverb to show the almighty power of the Tyrant’s destruction, it would help to make this scene more effective.  

When the Rabbi and his daughter and assistant are reunited  in the aftermath, we return to the doom space theme which suggest that the doom is continuing.  This seems to work well since the Golem is still on the loose.  Finally, when the Golem meets his fate at the hands of an innocent child, we are back to a reprise of one of the earlier guitar solos, which would be fine if the action in the movie were not completely different from the action where this guitar solo originally appeared.  My thought would be to insert the hypothetical “Beauty and the Beast” theme again, with the sweetness this time referring to the child, and then the Beauty and Beast themes going back and forth is a subtler way until somehow the Beauty accidentally topples the murderous Beast in the soundtrack to correspond with the action.  After that, when the children and the Jewish people come upon the corpse of the Golem, return to this earlier guitar theme as a coda, and then give one final star-doom growl as the Star of David returns in the “Fin” of the movie.

Overall, Gary Lucas Plays The Golem is a true rollercoaster.  All the musical pieces themselves are quite good, but they vary greatly in their success as soundtrack scores, with the high points being some of the best silent horror sequences I’ve ever seen.  There are so many “just right” flourishes, as well as details that are completely ignored to the detriment of the movie. I realize that I’m arguing with success, and that this is one of the longest-running and successful non-traditional silent movie soundtracks of our day.  A video release of Gary Lucas Plays The Golem has been a long time coming and it’s great that it’s finally available, but I cannot help but wonder if the soundtrack could be improved upon even further. 
 

More from Gary Lucas

Gary Lucas "Skeleton at the Feast" (1991) CD cover

Gary Lucas' first solo album Skeleton At the Feast (1991), which concludes with a thirty-minute suite of the music motifs from Gary Lucas Play The Golem. 

Gary Lucas has a lot more to offer in his widely varied and always interesting career.  Outside of his work as a silent movie soundtrack composer, Lucas is best known as one of the veteran members of Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band, a blues, psychedelic, and extreme prog band active and recording from 1965 to 1982.  The band’s frontman, Captain Beefheart (née Don Van Vliet), was a childhood friend to composer Frank Zappa, and a musical visionary whose extreme originality has been loved by critics and influential to many artists over the years.  Lucas played on the final two Captain Beefheart albums, Doc At the Radar Station (1980) and Ice Cream For Crow (1982). Since that time, he has worked as producer, session musician, and accompanist for names like Nick Cave, David Johansen (aka Buster Poindexter), Peter Gordon, Fred Schneider (of The B-52’s), Govt. Mule, Jeff Buckley, Joan Osbourne, and Chris Cornell to name a few.  He also fronts a supergroup called Gods and Monsters, whose members include Billy Ficca of Television and The Waitresses, and Ernie Brooks of Jonathan Richman’s The Modern Lovers.  He has worked in the Captain Beefheart tribute group The Magic Band, which consisted of all Captain Beefheart band alumni and was fronted by John French, the longest-running Captain Beefheart band member and one of the most original and greatest avant-garde style drummers in the world.  Lucas has also been a long-time member of the New York art community, and for years has been a regular performer at The Knitting Factory, one of New York’s best-known performance art venues. 

Lucas has many albums to his credit as a solo performer, of which I own two. His solo debut Skeleton at the Feast (1991) offers a thirty-minute suite of all the motifs from Gary Lucas Plays The Golem, as well as a potpourri of his signature live solo guitar pieces.  His career retrospective Improve the Shining Hour (2000) walks the listener through some of the highlights of the guitarist’s career, with samples of his work with Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band, Nick Cave, David Johansen, Gods and Monsters, and others.   

Autographed copies of these two CD’s are available from Lucas’ website at $20.00 US each.  Alternately, Skeleton at the Feast and Improve the Shining Hour are available from Amazon.com at the corresponding links.  

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Lucas has another DVD of movie scores available called Sounds of the Surreal/Monsters From the Id (2007).  Sounds of the Surreal is a three-in-one presentation, featuring Lucas performing his soundtracks to the surreal silent shorts Entr’acte (1924), Ballet Mechanique (1924), and The Cameraman’s Revenge (1912).  Monsters From the Id features Lucas playing to clips of his favorite horror and sci-fi movies that he grew up watching in the 1960’s, including Carnival of Souls, King Kong, and Rosemary’s Baby.  This DVD is available exclusively from Lucas’ website for $25.00 US and comes autographed by Lucas.
 

For more background information on Gary Lucas Plays The Golem and the movie The Golem, see this web page.  For more info on Gary Lucas himself, visit his official website
www.garylucas.com.


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