There should be little, if any, link between Pete Rock and CL Smooth’s iconic 1992 hip-hop track “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)” and silent film star Harold Lloyd’s 1928 action-comedy classic Speedy. But Z-Trip, the genre-bending Los Angeles musician who provided a live DJ score for the film Wednesday night at the Tribeca Film Festival, has carved a 15-year career unearthing unorthodox throughlines.
In this case, it was Pete Rock’s instantly recognizable looped horns of Tom Scott’s “Today” laced over one character’s call-to-arms bugle blast, just one of hundreds of synced cue points the DJ employed for an invigorating, unpredictable revitalization of the silent film score.
The film ostensibly rotates around Speedy (Lloyd) trying to stave off railroad magnates who are attempting to push out his girlfriend’s grandfather’s horse-drawn trolley company. But in Lloyd’s last silent film, plot takes a backseat for silly slapstick bits and elaborately planned chase sequences.
Z-Trip is not the first to bring a DJ sensibility to silent film – in 2003, British electronic jazz outfit Cinematic Orchestra performed live tracks set to Dziga Vertov’s 1929 Man With a Movie Camera, and DJ Spooky famously “remixed” D.W. Griffith’s racist 1915 Civil War epic to create Rebirth of a Nation in 2007. But Thursday night’s performance was revolutionary in its attention to detail: Some cues were obvious, like scratching up Beastie Boys’ “Fight for Your Right” during a fight between the railroad company’s goons and Lloyd’s friends.
But Z-Trip, who admitted after the show that he only had 10 days to soundtrack the entire 86-minute film, also employed subtle nods to cratediggers. When a dog appeared on-camera for the first time, the DJ played 10 seconds of Cat Steven’s 1977 instrumental proto-techno track “Was Dog a Doughnut?”
Z-Trip relished the dichotomy between recognizable, yet appropriate, tracks and obscure gems throughout the night. Cuing KRS-One’s “Sound of da Police” whenever a cop appeared might be an obvious choice; exposing the crowd to a salsa cover of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during a scene at a baseball game, however, is just different enough to seem inspired. The DJ has long been known for his use of children’s instruments, sound effects and other playful noises, and that skill was utilized frequently. (The sound of Super Mario Bros.’ Mario collecting coins when Lloyd earns a quarter received one of the biggest laughs of the night.)
“I hadn’t seen the movie [until] it came across my path and I’m totally blown away,” Z-Trip told the crowd after the film. “I think most people who see this stuff might glaze over certain things because its subtleties are so enormous, that if you happen to look away, you’ll miss the gag.”
The event worked mainly because Z-Trip found the line between reverence and irony. It’s hard not to laugh at the sound of Khia’s pro-oral sex anthem “My Neck, My Back” while watching Lloyd massage the grandfather’s neck to alleviate a cramp. But Z-Trip understood that he was just one part of the silent comedy, which has long been considered a classic before any musician – turntablist or otherwise – brought their interpretation to the movie, allowing certain scenes to unfold with minimal flourishes.
While this was only an one-off event for now, the DJ hinted at his desire to do more similar projects. After Bruce Goldstein, Director of Repertory Programming for New York’s Film Forum, noted that Lloyd made 11 silent movie masterpieces, Z-Trip replied, “This was completely uncharted territory for DJs like myself. Las Vegas parties and Coachella [sets] are a blast, but this is pushing the art form and allowing me to get creative and flex a new creative muscle. I definitely developed a hunger to do more of this.”