'Birdman' Composer Antonio Sanchez on Playing the Drum-Score Live: "It Was a Trial by Fire"


The crowd for the Thursday private screening at the Ace Hotel was reflected in the rock-concert-style whooping and hollering that greeted the jazz drummer’s frenzied fills and trills during the opening and closing credits.

Introducing a screening of Birdman at downtown’s Theatre at the Ace Hotel on Thursday night, star Michael Keaton rhapsodized about the “amazing” movie palace, looking up at the gilded rafters of the former United Artists Theatre with much the same look of awe that Emma Stone has in the last shot of the film. But he saved his real reverence — and a little bit of irreverence — for talking about the all-percussion score that Antonio Sánchez was about to recreate on stage while the movie unspooled.

Keaton riffed a bit on “the Birdman experience — which sounds like the name of a band” before zeroing in on Sanchez’s contribution. “When [director] Alejandro [Iñárritu] told me about the film,” Keaton told the 1,600 attendees, “I had loved all of his movies, and I really loved the score to Babel, so I said, ‘What are you thinking?’ — kind of curious. He said, ‘Drums.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I know, I’m sure there’ll be drums. But what are you going to do for the score?’ ‘No, I want there to be just drums.’ And I go, ‘Yeah, just drums!’” With that, Keaton did an eye roll you could see in the last row of the balcony. “I thought, he’s going to change his mind… I see the movie for the first time and not only could I not believe that he went through with it, but how unbelievably great it is. It’s hard to imagine the film without ‘just drums’,” he added, doing an imitation of Iñárritu’s accent in again rendering that two-word musical m.o.

Sánchez was briefer in his introductory remarks, primarily just warning the audience that pulling off the drum score live would be “really f---ing hard to do, so be nice!”

They were. The crowd for the private screening appeared to be about 20 percent industry and 80 percent young people who’d successfully submitted email bids for tickets, and that youthful imbalance was reflected in the rock-concert-style whooping and hollering that greeted the jazz drummer’s frenzied fills and trills during the opening and closing credits. Sánchez was lesser-noticed during the bulk of the film, as he’d made good on his vow to The Hollywood Reporter earlier Thursday to “make sure the light on me is not too prominent so people really focus on the movie” — though it was a given that the vast majority of the crowd was seeing Birdman for a second or third time in order to see Sanchez do a serious workout routine.

After signing CDs in the lobby for a half-hour following the show, Sánchez breathed a sigh of relief, saying the mere two days of rehearsal he got in ahead of time “actually paid off. It was a trial by fire, so everything else is going to be easy from now on, I hope,” he said, referring to plans to do a less rushed North American tour of more Birdman screening/performances in a few months. He admitted to some self-consciousness being in even a dim spotlight in the scoreless moments. “The only weird thing was to be between the audience and the screen. I felt exposed, when I wasn’t playing, like I was in the way, so I would sneak off. Other than that it was really cool.”

Earlier Thursday, Sánchez told us that “to recreate something that was improved using your stream of consciousness is one of the hardest things you can do as a musician,” and that he “wouldn’t recreate it note for note. As long as it [has] the same vibe and the same sound, you can change little things that are the really hard ones to recreate verbatim… Every time people come and see it when I’m playing to the movie, they’re going to see a different version.”

Assuming that his planned tour of Birdman screening drum-alongs comes to fruition, it should be the greatest thing to happen for the drums as an instrument since Whiplash — or maybe the exact antidote to Whiplash, given how many youngsters might’ve sold their drum kits after seeing that drama. Birdman might be partly about the deconstruction of superheroes, but Thursday night’s show was about turning a drummer into one.