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The Music of Circus

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Maro Chermayeff and Jeff Dupre

Listen to songs from CIRCUS by The Features. Photo by Allen Clark.

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A documentary film about the circus can high-step into stereotype pretty easily. First, there are the mental images most of us have of a ring master in traditional top hat and tails, barking superlatives over the heads of circus patrons. And then there are the traditional circus melodies: those demanding, up-tempo marches — also known as "screamers" — meant to whip the crowds into action. The low brass staccato notes practically manhandle the necks of the masses, forcing patrons to crane forward in an effort to catch the next tumbling acrobat or sad-eyed clown.

As Show of Force (SOF), the documentary film team behind PBS' CIRCUS, followed the Big Apple Circus for a year, they worked hard to eschew these stereotypical images in exchange for true-to-life moments under the big top. And the filmmakers demanded that same standard from the musical soundtrack that would bring CIRCUS to life for an audience.

"(SOF producers) Maro (Chermayeff) and Jeff (Dupre) know music inside and out ... and they bring a lot of direction and ideas (to the music soundtrack process)," says Carter Little, a music supervisor with 35Sound, the music production company responsible for acquiring music for CIRCUS. After viewing the film material, Little and 35Sound Founder G. Marq Roswell, began brainstorming about music that would best evoke the gritty-but-tender heart of the film.

"Musical diversity (in a film soundtrack) is important because you don't want to pigeon-hole the circus experience as being 'da da danta danta da da.' Circus folks have different cultural proclivities, different musical tastes, and we wanted to represent that," says Little.

Indeed, CIRCUS is suffused with moody, genre-bending songs that heighten tension during a perilous scene or brighten a whimsical moment.

"The music is very narrative focused," says Little. "The key is extracting the emotion from a scene."

Once they had a firm idea of the documentary material, Little and Roswell excavated various music libraries, as well as their own extensive collections, searching for songs that related to circus life. Next, they determined the motifs that burbled up to the film's surface -- themes such as survival and life on the road -- and searched for music that evoked those same emotions. They also cast a wide net, looking at music in all genres -- from blues to country-western to soul -- that might deepen the scope of the musical experience.

"That's the fun," says Roswell, "to mix all of that music and have it work seamlessly. And it's a testament to how good (CIRCUS) is, and how good Maro and Jeff are. The visuals lead the inspiration for the music," he says.

Indeed the soundtrack for CIRCUS is eclectic, featuring young up-and-comers such as Rod Picott, side-by-side with seasoned crooners such as Eartha Kitt, Conway Twitty and the Dixie Chicks. But the biggest coup for 35Sound's Little and Roswell might be the melancholic, but utterly addictive, sound of The Features, a Nashville-based band that's been playing together for nearly a decade. Little and Roswell used three of The Feature's songs from their latest album, "Some Kind of Salvation," in CIRCUS and also contracted the indie band to record a version of "New York, New York" for the closing montage in episode three.

"We hadn't done anything like that before," says The Features' guitarist, singer and main songwriter, Matt Pelham, of recording the classic song made famous by Frank Sinatra.

"You're never going to compare to the original (song), but we stripped it down and used our own instrumentation. I think it came out pretty well," he says.

The Features' abbreviated song, "Whatever Gets You By," opens each episode of CIRCUS and was written by Pelham. The short prelude chronicles a tough season in the life of the band when one member departed and the remaining musicians were dropped by their former label. The moody lyrics, coupled with a sparse instrumentation arrangement that builds, with the help of drums, electric guitar and tambourine, to a foot-tapping crescendo, proved ideal for CIRCUS.

Little discovered the Tennessee-based band years ago when he was a musician in Nashville and played some of the same venues with The Features. Little became a fan of their sound, and, when he heard their latest album, he was sure the band's quirky instrumentation and haunting sound was perfect for CIRCUS.

"Carter did such an amazing job in that he found a theme that matches the feeling of (the documentary). Everything from the tempo and the instrumentation ... it felt like it captured the feeling of the documentary. As soon as we played ("Whatever Gets You By") for Maro and Jeff, they loved it," says Roswell.

"New York, New York"

In this excerpt from episode three, hear Nashville-based band The Features' version of "New York, New York," which they recorded for the series.