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Lost and sound: Guitarist creates soundtrack for forgotten Orson Welles film

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This musician is settling an old score.

A long-lost silent film directed by Orson Welles will return to life with a new, live soundtrack at Boerum Hill’s Roulette on Jan. 27. Guitarist Gary Lucas says that he fell in love with “Too Much Johnson” the first time he saw the surreal black-and-white comedy, and knew that he had to create a score to enhance its eccentric story.

“This is the film for me because it’s so wacky,” said Lucas. “Most of the films I have done previously were more or less horror and fantasy genre, but this being a comedy — a surreal comedy — it was a nice refreshing change-up for me.”

Welles created the 1938 film as an homage to the silent comedies of the early 20th century, but he never completed editing it, and the footage was lost until 2008, when a copy was discovered in a warehouse in Italy. The 40-minute film follows a ladies’ man who flees a jealous husband by disguising himself as a wealthy Cuban plantation owner — the “Johnson” of the title — and slapstick hijinks ensue, said Lucas.

“I say it’s like the Keystone Cops on acid,” he said.

Lucas studied the film intensely for several months while writing the score, but he left space to improvise with his electric and acoustic guitars, he said.

“When I play these scores I’m very familiar with the film, and so I play specific music at different points for the themes,” said Lucas.

“But then I juggle them, and then improvise, compose music on the spot to underscore the action. I’ll be sitting right in front of it staring at it with my guitar, playing my heart out and trying to bring the characters to life.”

The film is a must-see, said Lucas, because it is a rare chance for audiences to see Welles’s pioneering genius, fully on display three years before the director made the famous “Citizen Kane.”

“It’s one of Welles’s most incredible feats of cinema magic,” he said. “They should come just because it’s Orson Welles — their chance to see a fantastic Orson Welles film that nobody knows about.”

“Gary Lucas: Too Much Johnson” at Roulette [509 Atlantic Ave. at Third Avenue in Boerum Hill, www.roulette.org]. Jan. 27 at 8 pm. $25 ($20 in advance).

Reach reporter Julianne Cuba at (718) 260–4577 or by e-mail at jcuba@cnglocal.com. Follow her on Twitter @julcuba.
Posted 12:00 am, January 24, 2017
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