A film without music would be akin to peanut butter without jelly.
“There is something missing without sound with a movie,” Alloy Orchestra musical director Ken Winokur said by phone from his Boston home.
Winokur, a former Iowa City resident who plays percussion and clarinet, speaks from experience. His Alloy Orchestra has been providing music to silent films for nearly three decades. The ensemble, based in Cambridge, Mass., will be adding new life to the 1928 comedy “Speedy” on Sunday night (10/27) at the Englert Theatre in Iowa City.
“A programmer from Boston asked us to do the live soundtrack for a movie in 1991,” Winokur said. That film was “Metropolis,” a 1927 German science-fiction classic.
“(In 1984) Giorgio Moroder put together a rock soundtrack for ‘Metropolis.’ He had Freddie Mercury and Adam Ant on the album,” Winokur said, adding that making a live soundtrack “was a pretty audacious idea” for the Alloy trio.
Alloy Orchestra also includes accordionist and “junk percussionist” Terry Donahue, who will use objects ranging from plumbing pipes to bed pans, and keyboardist Roger Miller, who also fronts punk iconoclasts Mission of Burma.
Alloy creates a provocative soundscape for its soundtracks.
“It’s a challenge,” Winokur said. “It’s also fun or we wouldn’t be doing this. Mixing rock music and silent film works.”
The Alloy Orchestra, which creates a soundtrack each year, must watch hours of silent film before coming up with a sonic concept.
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“It’s really hard to watch a movie without music,” Winokur said. “Watch enough film without any sound and you realize how essential music it is to a movie. It’s something we take for granted. The right music in a film helps the movie leap from the screen.
“Speedy” is one of Winokur’s favorites to perform.
“The movie is close to my heart,” he said. “It was released in 1928 and what was captured in New York City is extraordinary. People don’t realize it, but Harold Lloyd was more popular than (silent movie stars) Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin back then. He was such a gifted physical actor and comedian. When you watch the movie, you can’t help but be surprised by how sophisticated it is. It’s well shot, and the characters are deep, and the film is amusing.”
Babe Ruth, who plays himself, was impressive as an actor in “Speedy.”
“You will not believe how good Babe Ruth is in the movie,” Winokur said. “The Yankees are part of the movie. Speedy, the character played by Lloyd, is a Yankees fan. The Babe is larger than life on screen just like he was on and off the field. Another cool thing is that (Yankees legend) Lou Gehrig has a cameo in the film. You should try to look out for his appearance. He’s only in there for a few seconds.”
Winokur, a 1972 City High graduate, hopes to see some of his old friends at the show.
“I would love to see some faces from back then, but I go back home to perform every year, and not one person has come up and said, ‘Good to see you.’ But that’s fine. I did lose touch with my high school friends. It would be fun to reconnect, but that’s how it goes,” he said. “I’ve been back to visit my mom three times already this year. She’s 92 and it’s good to fly in as much as I can.”
Winokur also will spend time with his prominent sister, Patricia Winokur, who is the assistant dean of University of Iowa’s medical school.
“I’m the black sheep of the family,” Winokur cracked. “It’s great to be able to come back and reconnect and perform, particularly with a movie like ‘Speedy.’”
Winokur can be found at his favorite restaurant, Iowa City’s Sun Cafe, at some point over the weekend.
“I love that place,” he said. “A great Vietnamese restaurant in the middle of the country. How cool is that?”
• What: Alloy Orchestra: “Speedy”
• Where: Englert Theatre, 221 E. Washington St., Iowa City
• When: 7 p.m. Sunday (10/27)
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• Tickets: $10 to $20, Englert Box Office, (319) 688-2653 or Englert.org/event/alloy-orchestra-presents-speedy/
• Artists’ website: Alloyorchestra.com