The art of improvisation has long come naturally to Andrew J. Fletcher, dating back to piano lessons as a child when he would take liberties with classical compositions — much to his instructor’s dismay.
The Asheville stride (i.e., early jazz) pianist combines that gift with his love of movies in a live improvised piano soundtrack for Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid on Sunday, Feb. 21, at The BLOCK off Biltmore. The performance marks the sixth film Fletcher has accompanied in this manner, including works by silent film comedians Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd.
“Solo piano goes really well with the comedies. When you get into the dramas and the historical films, things like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, piano lacks the tonality that I think you need to bring to those things,” Fletcher says. “I’m playing to my strengths going straight to the comedies.”
Donning the role of a 1921 movie theater pianist, Fletcher will essentially offer a historical re-creation of what it would have been like in a cinema the week of The Kid’s debut. Back then, the technology for synchronized sound was still six years away from being a theater fixture, leaving most of the musical accompaniment up to the pianist to figure out. Trade journals published selections from classical compositions, providing mood suggestions for scenes ranging from romantic to comedic to the adventure of a sea battle. Fletcher has a book of these specifically labeled fills that he’ll consult if he’s struggling with what to play but will otherwise eschew sheet music.
For these live, improvised soundtracks, he’s done everything from no preparation to two prior viewings of a film. Very little will be precisely planned out for The Kid, though Fletcher will probably have what he calls “a few themes in the clip” — simple melodies for each main character that he can then manipulate, be it changes in tempos, time signatures or keys.
“Just with a few different ideas, the jazz musician’s brain can take that and make them fit all the different moments in the score but also have some continuity between all of those things,” he says. “I can react very quickly to what’s going on on the screen. … I’m not thinking about, ‘Oh, what did I do last time?’ But I’m thinking about, ‘What do I need to do right now?’ and the immediacy of that, I think, really comes through to the audience as well.”
Fletcher has seen The Kid roughly 10 times. Steeped in its history, he’s quick with anecdotes about how, in 1971, Chaplin composed a new score and recut the film from 75 minutes to 58, trimming the more sentimental scenes so that it moved faster. “It’s interesting for a director’s cut to be shorter, but there’s the beauty of Chaplin — his sense of timing got more refined even as he got older,” he says.
Fletcher also notes that The Kid is one of the few films with a perfect 100 percent “Fresh” rating on the review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes and names Jackie Coogan’s performance as the best ever by a child actor. Chaplin discovered Coogan performing in vaudeville and realized he was an amazing mimic. Upon casting the boy, Chaplin would act out parts for Coogan, who would watch and imitate his co-star to impressive results. The rapport between the two is so strong and produces such emotional resonance that the film still has the power to make Fletcher cry.
“If it’s a tearjerker moment, I’m going to play with all the pathos I can bring to it,” he says. “I’m there to grab those emotions and anticipate and embody them musically.”
The Kid is the only Chaplin feature in the public domain, so licensing costs are a nonfactor. Fletcher will project a high-quality 720p transfer and situate himself behind the audience, watching the film with them — a configuration that has historically worked wonders. “One of the best compliments I have gotten from doing this was, ‘I came here to see you, but I forgot you were here, and I just was watching the movie,’” he says. “That’s my whole goal, to imbue life into this movie with music.”
Fletcher will record his soundtrack, if he can get the technical details sorted out before the performance, and has a long-term goal of releasing his scores synched with the corresponding films on YouTube. He also hopes to use Concert Window so that people unable to attend the show — which includes a short film before the feature and a post-film performance by Fletcher’s band, The Roaring Lions — may watch from home.
WHAT: Live piano soundtrack to The Kid by Andrew J. Fletcher
WHERE: The BLOCK off Biltmore, 39 S. Market St. theblockoffbiltmore.com
WHEN: Sunday, Feb. 21, 8 p.m. $10