Night has fallen and Bill Murray and his musician collaborators have had a full day of interviews and a surprise pop-up performance at the Carlyle Hotel. (They’ll surprise fans the next day with an impromptu set at Washington Square Park.) They’re still running behind as they discuss what’s next on the agenda. Clearly, it’s time for martinis, as Murray and renowned cellist Jan Vogler pass cocktails to violinist Mira Wang and pianist Vanessa Perez to start their final interview of the day. Their camaraderie reflects their time spent on the road, from trekking between stops in Murray’s RV to performing at the historic Odeon of Herodes Atticus by the Acropolis in Athens, Greece, culminating in their new concert film New Worlds: The Cradle of Civilization.
“It was a real experience to bring it around. I felt like this old Shakespearean actor at the turn of the 20th century, down there in New Orleans, playing shows for people. ‘What the hell they saying?,” Murray tells Rolling Stone, slipping into a Southern drawl befitting the subject matter of their tour run, which primarily pairs American literary classics with classical music. “It just seemed like that, we were bringing something from a different planet, almost.”
Their concert documentary arrived in theaters on Wednesday. The film captures their 2018 performance at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, the final stop on their world tour that included the hallowed stages of Carnegie Hall and Sydney Opera House in Australia.
It’s heady stuff, to be sure, but the film is not just for classical fans and literature lovers: they expertly weave traditional classical compositions ranging from Bach to Schubert with modern classics, working in Broadway favorites from West Side Story to Tom Waits and Bruce Hornsby songs in delightfully cohesive and unexpected ways. In the film, Murray jokes with the audience that they might be wishing they were out getting moussaka instead. “They don’t see this one coming,” he tells RS. “Whatever they expect they’re going to see, they are not going to get what they think they’re going to get.” But that’s also part of New Worlds‘ beauty.
There is levity and joy — Murray playfully prances about while singing “I Feel Pretty” and hams it up during Tom Waits’ whimsical “The Piano Has Been Drinking” — but it’s also an incredibly moving journey through stories of love, loss, regret and yearning. During Piazzolla’s “Oblivion,” Murray and Wang dance a tango; Murray’s reading of Ernest Hemingway’s “With Pascin at the Dome” excerpt from A Moveable Feast transitions from descriptive scenes and colorful, bawdy character studies to a meditation on the human condition and the friend who has tragically died.
Viewing the 2018 concert through the lens of current events lends the material about life and humanity written years ago even deeper resonance. “Covid is probably the most difficult condition of this generation, this current moment, and if we don’t engage [and] jump on it, the opportunity that this difficulty creates [and] presents; we’re going to miss it,” Murray says. “We’re going to miss an enormous opportunity for growth.” One example that feels relevant today is Murray’s reading of Billy Collins’ 1990 poem “Forgetfulness,” which humorously explores memory loss but also could’ve been written about the ongoing pandemic where sense of time and memory warp like an endless Groundhog Day.
The project began as a collaboration between Murray and Vogler, who conceived the idea of melding the two classic disciplines they both revere into the album New Worlds. “We made the record first, and then we went out, and as I say, we learned how to play the music after that.” The New Worlds‘ artists and selections are tailor-made for the stage, and naturally the readings spring to life in a live setting in the film, with Vogler, Wang and Perez’s spirited performances and synergy between them playing off Murray. He embodies the various characters and scenes, which are palpable and vivid through his interpretations, accents, facial expressions, and impeccable sense of pacing.
“He’s a great master of timing through his acting and delivering all these moments that I think that was very much a key thing to make the show work,” Vogler says.
Murray says the pieces blended together in some instances by way of “just wonderful accidents,” citing the moment when Franz Schubert’s music buoys his selection from James Fenimore Cooper’s “The Deerslayer.” While the artists never met, they both wrote about the beauty of nature and as Murray explains in the film, Schubert was reading Cooper on his deathbed. “[It was] Mira’s idea to say, what if we did them both at the same time? And it was such a stupid idea that we tried it,” he teases, garnering laughter from his collaborators. “And it played — the rhythm of the words and the music, really, they found each other. And it was far more powerful together than they were individually on their own.”
A ride through the California desert inspired Murray’s inclusion of Van Morrison’s “When Will I Ever Learn to Live In God,” their first foray into newer work, which inspired them all to expand into other genres for the project. “It was an unusual year where there had been unlimited rainfall in the desert and what was usually just a dust storm was alive with flowers,” Murray says. The song was playing in his car as he happened upon hundreds of people watching the sunset. “They came to see the flowers and the sunset. And I just saw the reflection of the sun in their glasses. And I thought it was like Close Encounters of the Third Kind… And it’s really like, what’s happening? People are seeing something that they don’t understand. They don’t understand why the desert is alive with flowers. And I did not understand the lyrics of this song, I did not understand what he was saying and why he was so passionate, why he was so upset with himself, and why it got me, why it really got me.”
Murray also suggested Bruce Hornsby and the Range’s “The Way It Is,” which he chose to highlight Perez for its instantly recognizable piano riff. “It’s not an easy one to play,” he adds. “She can play it, but we can’t.”
The show and setlist evolved while they were on the road. By the time they arrived at their final tour stop in Greece, a dress had gone MIA when all of their baggage was lost (“She wore my dress,” Murray jokes) and they were sleep-deprived from a bad flight. But the performance came together in one marvelous take, a testament to the artists’ considerable chops. As is evident in the film, on the Zoom call the quartet’s chemistry is on display as they finish each other’s sentences and reminisce about highlights from the road, including bonding time at a Cubs game and at a Rolling Stones concert.
As for a possible follow-up to the ambitious New Worlds, Murray says they might do another one-off “for the jolly of it. But maybe we think of something new, something different.” If something is actually already brewing, however, Murray’s keeping things unexpected, answering with a nod to the Stones.
“Got no expectations to pass through here again,” he sings. “So take me to the station and put me on the train. Got no expectations to pass through here again.”