Ten Years of the Triplets of Belleville
Benoît Charest et le Terrible Orchestre de Belleville
Ottawa Jazz Festival
Wednesday, June 26, 2013 – 10:30 p.m.
Théâtre Jean-Duceppe, Place des Arts
Montreal Jazz Festival
Thursday, July 4, 2013 – 9:30 p.m.
Yup, you heard a vacuum cleaner. And a bicycle. And a green china teapot and a large metal soup pot and a newspaper and a record player – as well as more normal jazz instruments.
Watching Benoît Charest et le Terrible Orchestre de Belleville (a group of well-known Québeçois jazz musicians) on-stage in Ottawa and Montreal was almost as much as much “What will they do next?” experience as it was musical. And it was also a great deal of fun.
Ten years ago, the French/Quebec animated film, The Triplets of Belleville, was a resounding success with nominations or wins at the Academy Awards, the Canadian Genies, and the French Césars. And with its highly individual visual mixture of grotesquerie and absurdity – along with a storyline which went straight to your heart – it was a hit with audiences as well.
And one of the main people responsible for this success was Charest, a Montreal jazz composer and guitarist who wrote the music for the film. He was nominated for a Best Music Oscar for the film, and Best Song Oscar for its theme song, “Belleville Rendez-Vous”.
And now, for the tenth anniversary of the film, Charest decided to presented a live rendition of the soundtrack, played in sync with the film. It's a technically challenging endeavour, given that the soundtrack pervades almost the entire show, and requires split-second timing and the use of some very unusual instruments. Many of the musicians wore headphones throughout the show to keep on time.
But it's also artistically valid, because the music is so important in the movie. There is no actual dialogue. Everything – the whole story of how a grandmother and her pet dog rescues her cyclist grandson from grave danger, with the help of three highly eccentric singers– is told through sound effects and music and the visual action. Even the song lyrics don't actually advance the plot – that's more done by the grandmother's highly expressive whistle.
So seeing hearing the musicians play that soundtrack live – even though there's not much room for improvisation or diversion from the score – was fascinating, if only to figure out exactly which instrument was responsible for which sound. It also reminded one of how infectious and listenable Charest's mixture of swing and jazz and a bit of pop really was.
Charest brought together seven musicians, including himself on guitar and vacuum cleaner, Jim Doxas on drums, Chet Doxas on flute, clarinet, and saxophone, Dan Thouin on piano, vibraphone, and accordion, Dany Roy on trumpet and other horns, Dave Martin on tuba and trombone, and Simon Meilleur on various sound effects and percussion, to play the soundtrack. The lineup was primarily the same in Ottawa and Montreal – the main difference being that Béatrice Bonifassi, who sang in the film and at the Academy Awards ceremony, sang live at the Montreal show, instead of her recorded voice being used.
The musicians were arranged in a horseshoe around a large table on which were arrayed a wide range of sound effect devices (including maracas, a drum, the pot, the teapot, and the newspaper). At the back was an upside-down bicycle whose spokes were strummed in sequence at one point. At various times in the show, musicians would leave their spots and play the devices and a technician with a boom microphone appeared to ensure they were clearly heard.
Beside the table was a large wooden board on the floor on which the musicians would stomp when, on the screen, the Triplets were dancing on-stage.
There was great care taken at both performances to get good sound, and in both cases it sounded wonderful: clear and crisp and nicely in sync.
So was it well-received? In both shows, there were already lots of laughs only a minute or two into the film, and they continued throughout. In Ottawa, the instant the credits came up the audience leaped to its feet for a standing ovation, and continued clapping as the orchestra played the end music. In Montreal, probably because Bonifassi was singing then, the audience just applauded hugely and then clapped in time until the music ended. Then Charest got an enthusiastic standing ovation – and responded with a pirouette.
In both cases, the place looked just about full. But the smaller OLG tent felt more intimate than the 755-seat Jean-Duceppe Theatre, and it was easier to see the musicians and what they were doing.
And as a musical event? Oddly enough, the only problem was the film. It was so engaging and thrilling that, even the second time I saw the show and with a particular interest in listening to the music, I still got swept up in the story and didn't always follow what the musicians were doing.
But that also meant that the soundtrack worked – that it underscored the movie so well that they fit integrally as a live performance. And there were people still humming the tunes as they left the theatre. I'd call that a win.
– Alayne McGregor
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All photos ©Brett Delmage, 2013
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