Best St. Louis Shows of 2011: Rats & People present Go West

Rats & People Motion Picture Orchestra present Go West at El Leñador, September 26, 2011
by Jaime Lees

The Rats & People Motion Picture Orchestra is consistently among the most interesting and talented groups in St. Louis. This tiny orchestra (comprised of former members of the Baysayboos, Whole Sick Crew, etc.) takes old silent films and writes a score to accompany them. Then the group plays the score live as audiences watch the film.

Aside from providing quality entertainment, the Orchestra also forces an education on younger film fans. The mostly-forgotten silent films of yesteryear are now vital and alive in the minds of anyone who has seen a Rats & People show. The group has done Go West, Die Bergkatze, Nosferatu, Strike and others. As accidental historians and educators, it has brought a bit of classic cinema to all of us fans, and we are thankful. Rats & People Motion Picture Orchetsra performances are beautiful and get a huge positive response from audiences. (Each show I’ve seen has ended with a standing ovation.)

But the group does have one problem: too much talent and not enough money. It’s a common complaint here in town, but in this case it seems especially unfair. The members of R&P MPO are hard-working, ambitious and sweet. They take each task very seriously and wish to do the best job possible. They are diligent to the point of obsession when studying, scoring, editing, practicing and playing a new project. It is their attention to detail and love of their work that makes their performances so special for audiences. They work to the point of exhaustion, and it shows.

The group was very interested in touring (especially after being so well-received among the film community in neighboring Columbia, MO), but the tour van needed work. In order to raise money to go on tour, Rats & People set up a residency at El Leñador (an El Leñadency, as it’s called) and performed a different piece every week, usually presenting one full film with a short or two included.

The last week of the El Leñadency was to feature Go West, but the performance was protested by the copyright holders of the Buster Keaton classic. They wanted $250 for the screening of the film. Already having promised free shows and Go West, in particular, the Orchestra decided that they wouldn’t back out on its fans. The group would, however, accept donations to pay for the Go West screening so that they wouldn’t have to borrow from the van fund just to have the show.

The band set up a website to take donations on a Sunday night, and they had all the money they needed before noon the next day. Donations were made not only by locals, but by fans and friends out of state — ones that wouldn’t even be able to see the performance — just because they wanted to contribute. Upon reaching their goal, the band took down the donation link and sent out a polite update which read: “We’re gonna Go West on the 26th! Thank you so much. We’re… speechless, humbled, so very grateful for your help and support.” And because they are so damn classy, they even mailed hand-written thank you notes to each of the donors.

But the night of the performance wasn’t all smiles and victory at first. The news was bleak that day: St. Louis visionary and rogue developer Bob Cassilly had been found dead that morning at the construction site of his newest project, Cementland. The mood out on the crowded sidewalk pre-show was gloomy. This particular audience seemed to be comprised of tons of young artists — many living in the neighborhood on Cherokee Street — and everybody seemed to be just a little upset. There were whispers, rumors, a few tears.

We were all kind of lost that night until the R&P brought us back together — both as an audience and as humans. The visuals co-mingling with the beautiful strings is, at times, too much for a wee heart to take. Go West can produce quite a swing of emotions in the viewer, and it’s interesting to go from crying to laughing in the span of just a few minutes.

Sitting there watching Go West that night (for the 5th time, I believe), I had one repeating thought: It’s silly that we’re watching this at El Leñador. This should be in a museum. This should be at the Sheldon. This should be at the Fox. I mean, I’m glad that we get to watch it there for free, sipping on cheap drinks at our favorite place, but R&P deserve the grandest of stages. And it deserves more money.

Its members did raise enough money that night to get their van fixed and they went on to play Milwaukee, Madison, Chicago and Farmington, before coming home to begin work on yet another project. Thankfully, Cassilly’s fearless, inventive spirit lives on.

Oh Shit Moment: When Friendless straps deer antlers on Brown Eyes so that she can defend herself against the Bull. (If that reads like code, you’re missing out.) Audiences always gasp. That scene gets us every time, we’re not sure if we’re going to laugh or cry and we end up doing both. ‘Bittersweet’ is a hell of an emotion.

Highlight of the Night: Watching all of the smiling, tear-stained faces after the show. Everyone was just a little lighter and more loving as they left the venue. People who had been closed off and numb earlier were hugging and kissing after the performance. Everyone seemed to have that sort-of magical post It’s a Wonderful Life glow.