In the silent movie era, a constant companion to the stories and stars on the silver screen were the film’s faithful accompanists. Playing mostly off-the-cuff, musicians would help set the tone and mood of movies, a precursor to today’s modern use of a film score.
Both are an invaluable part of the moviegoers’ experience.
For 10 years, local musicians Ut Gret and the University of Louisville’s Student Activities Board have been reviving this tradition and presenting the public and UofL students the opportunities to see classics of the silent film era, once again strengthened by live accompaniment.
On Friday, they’re offering “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” the 1920 John Barrymore classic in which he portrayed both the mild-mannered Dr. Henry Jekyll and the dangerous Mr. Hyde.
Ut Gret founding member Joee Conroy spoke with Insider about the band, its 36-year life and many incarnations, as well as scoring silent films and what happens to that music after the film has stopped playing.
“I formed the band in Santa Cruz, Calif., in 1981, and I moved the whole band to Louisville in ’89,” says Conroy.
At first, the whole band was Conroy and one other musician. But over the years, there have been quite a few membership changes and, in addition to a protean roster, the band has also changed up its musical style multiple times.
“We started out as free jazz, and then we moved into just about every genre you can think of, including world music,” he explains. “We’ve been an all-electronic group at one point, we’ve been doing home-built electronics. We’ve been a rock band.”
Conroy started playing music to silent films at UofL 10 years ago with a band called Sapat.
“We did ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,’ but we just kind of winged it,” he says. “We didn’t really prepare for it. We watched the movie once. It was just, like, oh, we’ll just play whatever we feel. It was sort of cacophonous, which worked for the film.”
Since then, UofL has invited Conroy back, along with Ut Gret, to work on a host of black-and-white classics, including “Metropolis,” “Nosferatu,” “The Lost World,” “The Adventures of Prince Achmed,” “The Call of Cthulhu” and “The Phantom of the Opera.”
Unlike the silent film accompanists of old — and that first experiment with Sapat — Ut Gret is not winging it. The band puts a lot of work into the music in advance.
“Each of these films take about three months of preparation, because we have to get it so that everybody remembers their parts,” says Conroy. “You can’t be looking at a score and taking direction from the film. We’re using the film like a conductor.”
That’s a lot of work to score an old movie for a single screening. Conroy recalls the energy it took to prepare for “Metropolis.”
“The film’s like two-plus-hours long. It’s huge, it’s exhausting. But, of course, it’s the best of the German Expressionist films.”
That exhaustive work on “Metropolis” didn’t get thrown away after the final frame’s “Das Ende” faded. Some parts got a second life.
“There’s a really good monster scene where it shows modern industry taking enslaved human beings and spitting them out, and we took that theme and put it on our album ‘Radical Symmetry,’ ” he says. “I think we called it ‘Infinite Regress.’ ”
That has happened with a couple of themes.
“If the music’s good enough, we’ll keep it,” he adds.
Conroy is excited about the music Ut Gret has written for Friday. According to Conroy, “Jekyll and Hyde” is a slow burn, which allows themes and motifs to be introduced and explored.
Unlike some films.
“Like, when we did ‘Lost World,’ everything was a jump-cut,” he says. “Like, ‘Here’s a comedic bit, here’s a part with dinosaurs.’ We were always jumping around. Comedy requires a certain kind of music, and dinosaurs require a certain kind of music.”
Conroy says that despite being almost a 100 years old, “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” is still relevant today.
“This one really plays to our times because it’s not about good vs. evil. It’s about what happens when a sexually repressed man finds a way to ‘hide’ his public identity and act out his true desires without the social consequences,” says Conroy. “A man with no moral responsibility to anyone but himself. A timeless tale that illustrates our current leadership in Washington.”
Catch Ut Gret and “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” at 8 p.m. on Friday, April 13, at UofL’s Floyd Theater. The theater is in room W308 of the Student Activities Center, 2100 S. Floyd St. The event is free and open to the public.