SIFF Review: Stephin Merritt's 20'000 Leagues Under the Sea

The 1999 release of the three-CD magnum opus 69 Love Songs by the Magnetic Fields brought a wealth of critical and commercial attention for the band's principal songwriter Stephin Merritt. As well, Merritt began to receive a variety of offers to translate his musical and lyrical brilliance for other media.

In the eleven years since, he has written incidental music for film and helped adapt a trio of Chinese plays and the Neil Gaiman book Coraline into stage musicals.

More recently, Merritt was commissioned to write and perform a live musical score for a 1916 silent film adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, which played to rousing response at this year's San Francisco International Film Festival.

Maintaining their fine track record for adding unusual and exciting events to the calendar each year, the organizers of the Seattle International Film Festival — who are friendly with the San Francisco fest — brought the entire 20,000 Leagues experience to an nearly packed Paramount Theater on Wednesday.

Joining Merritt was accordionist Daniel Handler, better known to bibliophiles as Lemony Snicket, author of the Series Of Unfortunate Events books; Daniel Hegarty, the senior organ player at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco (where this event was originally held in 2009); and a horn player who alternated between baritone and trumpet.

Merritt didn't take great liberties with the material he was scoring — adding a few fantastic songs to accompany certain scenes, a smattering of dialogue (with Handler taking on the few female roles in the film), and plenty of ambient noise and sound effects to fill out the lilting music that his small ensemble kept up throughout.

The same can't be said for the makers of this film adaptation. They stuck closely enough to Jules Verne's original novel that focuses on a group of castaways who, after being sent to investigate an evil monster that is sinking ships in the Atlantic, are rescued by Captain Nemo and taken onboard his submarine.

Read the full review after the jump.

Much of the adventurous moments of 20,000 Leagues (including the famous giant squid battle) were nixed in place of elements pulled from that novel's sequel Mysterious Island, which places a batch of shipwrecked sailors on the titular island, as well as a corny love story and a fairly happy ending for the many heroes of the film.

Much of the story and acting are kitsch, but what stood out were those moments that likely marveled moviegoers in the early 20th century: gorgeous, stirring shots of underwater life and scenes featuring actors in elaborate diving suits on the floor of ocean. Merritt wisely pulled the music back for many of these scenes, instead soundtracking it with a constant sonar ping and the gurgle of water.

Elsewhere, though, minor key melodies — the tone of which would be recognizable to anyone who has followed Merritt's career — held sway throughout, turning into original songs that commented on the onscreen action. The best occurred during a scene where one of the shipwrecked men tries to encourage a young woman he has found on the island to put on some new clothes. Merritt turned this into a wry back and forth (a la "Yeah! Oh Yeah!" from 69 Love Songs) sung by he and Handler.

The song also emphasized the unfortunate technical limitations of the event, as well. All the dialogue and vocals were amplified only by a pair of megaphones. So, unless you were sitting directly behind the four performers in the Paramount's middle section of seats, you could only clearly pick up the sound of whoever's megaphone was closest to you. In my case, this meant Handler came through loud and clear, but Merritt was drowned out by the loud strains of the pipe organ; a minor upset for an otherwise fantastic evening of musical and cinematic entertainment.


Only four days left to SIFF. Consult the 2010 SIFF Guide online now.