How can a film with no conventional score be dubbed “the most musical movie ever made?" Director David Grubin breaks the rules with Downtown Express, a sweet indie flick whose characters, all musicians, create the soundtrack with performances in each soulful scene. The sound isn’t a backdrop to the action. The sound is coming from the action, propelling the story forward and pulling you in with it.
“It's all about the music,” Grubin explains at the soundtrack launch. Before the film had been cast or the plot nailed down, he knew that music would be at the heart of it all.
Downtown Express follows a promising Julliard violin student, played by famed classical violinist Philippe Quint, who joins a band of street performers and falls for its lead singer, played by quirky songstress Nellie McKay. My feminist self is already a longtime fan of Nellie's offbeat stylings, but it's impossible not to be wowed by Quint's mastery of his craft as well. The unlikely pair work with director David Grubin and the film’s Downtown Express band, a collection of seasoned pros who vibe together with ease, on and off screen. The crew turns spoken word, basement-style rock jams, jazz, pop, Tchaikovsky opuses, and plenty in between into surprisingly cohesive, uber-groovy tracks.
My personal standout favourites are “Ain’t No Train,” a bluesy lamentation with bounce, and “When I Look at You,” a multi-layered balancing act between Phillipe’s character’s classical music world and the street scene of the Downtown Express band. Compare “Transience (Sticks and Stones)” to “Nocturne Opus 19 No. 4” to see how far this soundtrack really stretches.
It’s hard to think of New York City without a sonic backdrop – this place is loud. Cab horns, street blabber, subway rumblings. Hare Krishnas chanting in Union Square. Hagglers hollering on Canal Street. To most folks (or at least to me) this is rarely a symphonic treat. But the music of Downtown Express takes the rhythm of the city and makes it something magical.