In June 2008, the seven members of the sweeping, instrumental Austin rock band My Education set up shop in front of the screen of the Silent Movie Theatre, a refurbished movie theater in West Hollywood, Calif. They were there to perform a live score set to F.W. Murnau's classic 1927 silent melodrama "Sunrise." After nearly 100 minutes were up and the house lights went on, the band discovered several audience members were crying.
It's not wholly unusual for audience members to cry in response to the potent combination of Murnau's striking, dreamlike fable and My Education's ethereal live score ("It sounds kind of cheesy to say this, but we have made a couple of people cry," says bassist Scott Telles. "And I'm very proud of that.")
But that night, something else was at work. More than 11 years before, in January 1997, the previous owner of the Silent Movie Theater, 74-year-old Laurence Austin, had been shot and killed in the projection booth as "Sunrise" played. The theater was closed afterward for several years — and even after reopening, operators steered clear of screening "Sunrise" and all the painful memories it evoked.
"We didn't know any of this when we got there, and wondered why there was this big clamor that 'Sunrise' had come back," recalls viola player James Alexander. "For the current owner, it marked a milestone. He felt like he'd gotten past the curse of the film, because nobody got murdered at our show. That's some pretty powerful stuff."
The subtext is liable to be a little less monumental when My Education again performs the score tonight at the downtown Alamo Drafthouse — the theater that first commissioned the work more than two years ago — after touring it in movie theaters across the country. But they will be commemorating Tuesday's release of "Sunrise" on CD — a retooled version of the score designed to stand on its own that marks the fifth full-length studio album from the cerebral rockers since their 1999 formation.
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"We had been working on an album with some pieces that had been in the film and some that were not. And we decided it would be kind of silly to do an album of mixed pieces," says Telles. "So we decided to focus on the music that we wrote for the film. And it came out quite well and we're quite proud of it. I think it's one of the best things we've ever been involved with musically. Doing it with the movie is just kind of icing on the cake that brings it all together."
Guitarist Brian Purington founded the band in 1999, originally as a rock outfit featuring vocals. Members came and went until it evolved into a haunting, mildly psychedelic instrumental rock band — the kind of group that often gets described as cinematic. That theatrical sound — as well as Telles' experience scoring "Metropolis" with long-running local band ST37 — led to the Alamo Drafthouse approaching the band to perform a live score to a film of their choice.
Telles and Alexander drew up a list of about five films that intrigued them — including "Incubus," a William Shatner-starring 1965 horror film shot entirely in the Esperanto language. They eventually settled on "Sunrise," the first American film by German Expressionism director Murnau — and winner of an Academy Award for "Unique and Artistic Production" in the very first Academy Awards ceremony.
"After sitting around and watching the other ones, we decided to go with 'Sunrise,'\u2009" Telles says. "At the time, kind of all the other great silent films had already been taken, and this was a real gem that nobody had done yet to our knowledge."
The band crafted the score during countless hours of jam sessions, improvisational practices and screenings, eventually road-testing and perfecting it in performances across the country. The resulting music works powerfully when paired with Murnau's original film — and, heard in isolation on CD, evokes the same haunting, thoughtful charm that so defines the film.
"The challenge with the record was taking these great ideas that we had created with the movie specifically and putting them down as their own, different songs," says Alexander. "So the album is made to stand on its own. It should provide the listener with a unique experience that doesn't require a movie to go with it."
My Education performs ‘Sunrise' live
When: 7 p.m. Sunday, April 25
Where:Alamo Ritz, 320 E. Sixth St.