The rhythm of Antonio Sanchez’s life as a performer has changed in the wake of his unusual, award-winning soundtrack for Birdman, writes Iain Shedden
Antonio Sanchez is slightly nonplussed about all the awards that have come his way in the past year or so. “I wasn’t doing anything different to what I normally do,” says the 44-year-old Mexican, “just playing my drums.”
Admittedly he’s an excellent drummer, much in demand for his sophisticated jazz chops, as he has been for most of his career, but it’s only since the release of the feature film Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), director Alejandro G. Inarritu’s highly original tale of an actor confronted by his past, starring Michael Keaton, that Sanchez has had to find room on his mantelpiece for trophies, including a BAFTA and, in October, one for best film score from the World Soundtrack Awards.
“It’s not like I was really doing anything out of my comfort zone and awards was the last thing I was thinking about when we started on the project,” he says. “That’s not on your radar. So when the movie started gathering steam ... the amount of awards they give out is almost funny.”
One that didn’t come his way was an Oscar. Sanchez’s score was deemed ineligible for the Academy Awards because it contained other musical elements, including segments by Mahler and Tchaikovsky. Sanchez says he was disappointed at the judges’ decision, but isn’t sure it would have won in any case.
“Of course everybody was angry when it first happened,” he says. “I thought it was unfair, but the silver lining was that the score got so much publicity because of the elimination that more people talked about it that way than if it had got nominated and not won. I doubt it would have won. A first-timer? A jazz musician? I really doubt that it would have won, but maybe it could have.”
Sanchez, more attuned to being the percussive backbone to modern jazz players such as Pat Metheny and Chick Corea, or to performing with his own ensemble, took a sharp left turn when his friend Inarritu asked him to come up with a score for his movie using only the instrument he uses every day of his life, his drum set.
Since the film’s release late last year, Birdman has garnered broad critical acclaim and awards in non-musical categories, too. So successful have the film and it’s unusual, crucial music component been that Sanchez is enjoying a second wind as a consequence, performing the score in concert alongside the movie at select venues around the world. It’s in that mode the drummer will arrive in Australia next month, to perform Birdman at MONA FOMA in Hobart and at Sydney Festival.
The live soundtrack is an experience where there is an option to switch from watching the film to watching the accompanying musician at work. That’s why Sanchez positions himself under dim lighting to the side of the screen for most of the performance.
“I don’t like taking up too much visual field,” he says. “I want the movie to be the focus. That’s what’s so cool about it. People have the choice to look at me or the film. I like being off to the side and under dimmed light. Then at the end, when the credits are rolling, the light switches to me and I’ll play a crazy long solo.”
So far Sanchez has done that in Los Angeles, at a concert where Keaton introduced him, and in New York. There are plans to take the Birdman drumming experience to Europe next year. The drummer improvises each time, just as he did when first asked to come up with a drum score to the script, so no two performances are the same. He admits, however, that the director wasn’t happy with what he was doing when the project got under way.
“He sent me the script and I read through it and started sending him some demos based on that,” says Sanchez, “but he wasn’t really liking
Birdman what I was sending him. He wanted something that was a lot more organic and less organised — and what I was sending him was very organised.”
The thespian and musical disciplines locked together only after the director used those early drum tracks to instruct his actors, to give the film an unusual rhythm in movement and dialogue.
“We were in the studio while they were still shooting the film,” says Sanchez, “and we worked with the script, pretty much doing every scene which he envisaged with drums.
“They used those demos on the set while they were working with the actors, so they would develop a rhythm of what the whole thing was going to be like.”
Sanchez later recorded the drum parts again “to make them sound more raw”.
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Mexican drummer Antonio Sanchez and, left, Michael Keating in
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