Tuesday, May 27, 2014

"Waiting to see what comes next": Louie's current "Elevator" arc is a great example of the brilliance of the band SweetPro

Here we see Charles Grodin and Louis C.K. starring in It's Midnight, and I'm Getting the Runs!
"Look at his face: perfectly happy, belly is full, just looking, waiting to see what comes next. Do you know the only thing happier than a three-legged dog? A four-legged dog. Now if you'll excuse me, this dog would like to get some air."--Dr. Bigelow (Charles Grodin), Louie

Louie, which is now in the middle of its fourth season on FX, is currently one of my favorite comedic cable shows, mostly because it's expanding the horizons of what a scripted half-hour comedy can be. The show follows a fictionalized version of Louis C.K., who stars as himself, as he awkwardly navigates his way through both the dog-eat-dog world of stand-up and the difficulties of single parenting. In most episodes of Louie, there are long stretches that go without any humor, which makes Louie difficult to classify as a sitcom or dramedy or Drambuie or whatever.

But it's not a completely serious show either, because of the often profanely funny stand-up segments that conclude most episodes. Louie's largely melancholic tone is also disrupted by the show's dips into surrealism, which bring to mind C.K.'s prior work as a director of comedic short films (one of my favorite recent examples: the absurdist gibberish that's overheard from one of the show's fictional news channels, which reports of a hurricane that killed LeBron James and the rest of the Miami Heat). There's also the presence of comedic side characters like the hilariously unprofessional physician Ricky Gervais portrayed in the first season (a character who's so hilarious that during the naked medical check-up scene in the episode "Gym," you can see C.K., whose face is kept off-camera, breaking character and trying not to laugh because C.K.'s man-boobs are shaking while Gervais ridicules his dick).

Louie is less like a standard single-camera sitcom and more like a pair of different short films each week--or in the case of the third season's three-part "Late Show" arc and this season's six-part "Elevator" arc, a feature film divided into, respectively, three or six 22-minute fragments. C.K. writes and directs every episode of Louie, and he often edits the show by himself. What might surprise some viewers is that he doesn't score the show like how John Carpenter would score his own movies. That task actually belongs to the Brooklyn band SweetPro, led by Matt Kilmer and featuring Maxfield Gast, Adam Platt, Ryan Scott, Mike Shobe and Benjamin Wright. Kilmer prefers to call himself the show's "music coordinator" rather than "music director" because of the collaborative and jigsaw nature of SweetPro's work, "where all of the band members, and even Louis himself, write their own parts and we put them together," as Kilmer described it to The Hollywood Reporter.

The band's original score music on the show is either primarily jazzy or influenced by the sounds of whatever location Louie finds himself in, if the episode takes place in an ethnic part of New York or if it ventures outside New York. The music screams out urbane and ethnically diverse New York in much the same way that Joseph Vitarelli's jazzy score to 1994's The Last Seduction screams out New York.

SweetPro layers over many of its Louie score cues some sort of audio filter that makes them sound like ancient library music or old vinyl. As a result, the warm-sounding end credits instrumental that concludes every Louie episode feels like it's straight out of a '50s Blue Note album. It's the perfect accompaniment for all those excerpts of C.K.'s act that are filmed inside the place where his on-screen alter ego feels most at home: on-stage at the Comedy Cellar in Greenwich Village.

The band's cues are the best kind of cues: they don't heavy-handedly dictate how the viewers should feel, and they're distinctive without calling attention to themselves. ("As of now, there are no plans to put out the music but we want to do it and Louis wants it... There are issues that have to be resolved legally," said Kilmer to The Hollywood Reporter in 2012 about the possibility of a Louie score album, which would be fantastic to see; Kilmer hinted that the score album is in the works on Twitter earlier this month, but the release itself has yet to be confirmed.)

The image quality of this photo is in mono.
SweetPro (Photo source: The Last Best Page)
The most baffling thing about SweetPro's outstanding work on Louie is that it receives no attention from the film and TV music press, specifically online publications like Film Score Monthly, Film Music and Tracksounds. I think it's because Louie doesn't feature any gangsters, sword fighters, zombies, vampires, serial killers, monsters, robots or superheroes. It's not the kind of show Bear McCreary, a frequent subject in the articles and album reviews on those film and TV music sites, would be seen scoring. Neither is it the kind of show that would appeal to the Film Score Monthly crowd.

But Louie is a huge deal among comedy nerds like myself. And what the show is doing right now with its often unpredictable and philosophically minded "Elevator" arc is remarkable--comedically, dramatically and musically. Even at an advanced point in this arc (there's only one "Elevator" episode left), I still have no idea where the arc is going, but I remain riveted.

I had to rewatch a few times Todd Barry's seemingly incongruous "Elevator (Part 5)" monologue about the pleasures of being a single man without kids, in order to understand what exactly Barry's oddly captivating description of a typically mundane day in his life has to do with the thread that's tying all these slightly obtuse "Elevator" episodes together. That would be Louie's difficulties in communicating with nearly all the females in his life, particularly his ex-wife Janet (Susan Kelechi Watson); his temporary neighbor and new girlfriend Amia (Eszter Balint), a polite single mom from Hungary who speaks barely any English and is spending only a few weeks in America; and his 10-year-old violin prodigy daughter Jane (Ursula Parker). (I've noticed that the woman he's had the least trouble communicating with during the "Elevator" arc is Amia's elderly aunt Ivanka, who's played by Ellen Burstyn. During his first encounter with Ivanka, when she's distraught and stuck inside the titular broken elevator in their apartment building, Louie calms her down by getting her to pretend she's in "a little waiting room with no chairs and no windows, like on purpose." The "waiting room" advice sparks his friendship with Ivanka, which leads to his romance with her niece. It also may have saved Ivanka's life.)

I often prefer cold pizza over bacon and toast for breakfast. I'm still waiting for that diner that serves cold pizza for breakfast to fucking open.
(Photo source: Warming Glow)
The centerpiece of "Elevator (Part 5)," Barry's enjoyable five-minute monologue goes into precise, GoodFellas-like detail about the little victories of Barry's previous day (a free donut; a free bowl of ramen; getting the Poughkeepsie club owner to correct the misspelling of his last name on the sign of his dressing room door, an act that absurdly and amusingly garners applause and cheers from everyone in the bar who's listening to Barry's story, except a puzzled and typically cranky Nick DiPaolo). The monologue is left open to interpretation. Are those little victories some sort of message from the universe to Louie that he should stop obsessing over the things that keep him miserable and take it easy, just like the three-legged dog from cranky Dr. Bigelow's bit of romantic advice to Louie about deciding to "pick a road"?

Or is Barry's life a sign to Louie, who's afraid of being lonely and is so worried about losing Amia, that a life without women or kids to challenge him would be a pathetic, empty and lonely one? (A few viewers in the A.V. Club's Louie comments section have been pushing towards Barry's story as being on the pathetic side, while others view Barry's life as perfect. Not waking up until 10am is indeed the shit.)

Whatever the case, SweetPro's score during the monologue--as C.K. masterfully cuts back and forth between the bar where Barry's recounting his day and Barry's odd journey to Poughkeepsie, the same town where the dog lost his leg to a coyote--is a little treat to behold. It shifts from loungy to Latin to bluesy and upbeat, and of course, each movement in SweetPro's monologue suite is layered over with that filter that makes the cues sound mono instead of stereo. The monologue suite brings to mind the Beastie Boys' "B-Boy Bouillabaisse," the extraordinarily structured 12-minute Paul's Boutique track that consists of nine movements, "each a distinct little world that could stand on its own," as PopMatters describes it in its analysis of Paul's Boutique.

Here we see Louie inviting Amia to join him for a morning of being one of those annoying sign holders who always stand behind the hosts of The Today Show.
The "Elevator" arc is full of similarly good musical choices from SweetPro, whether's it's the Hungarian folk motif that represents Amia or the source cues at the bars or diners where Louie is frequently seen struggling with communication. SweetPro's country-western source cue at the diner where Pamela (Pamela Adlon) has a one-sided talk with Louie ("No one wants to be with you, Louie, stop lying!") amplifies, in a bizarre but somehow fitting way, Louie's discomfort with the sudden return of this single mom he was in love with two seasons ago, but he now finds to be obnoxious, immature and less attractive. C.K. also experiments with not using any SweetPro score music at all for one entire "Elevator" episode: "Part 4," which contrasts present-day Louie and Janet with young, childless Louie and Janet (played respectively by Conner O'Malley and Brooke Bloom, who, unlike Watson, isn't black, which is yet another odd and intentionally silly touch in which C.K. doesn't give two shits about continuity on his own show).

The arc also contains superb musical moments that don't involve SweetPro, particularly my favorite scene of the entire arc: the "Elevator (Part 3)" violin duet. In the hallway of their apartment building, Amia and Jane communicate through music and demonstrate how much better they are at communication than Louie is with, well, practically everybody (I especially like the genuinely nervous expression on the face of Parker, who actually started playing the violin when she was only three, while she's dueting with Balint).

What separates C.K. from Woody Allen, a filmmaking idol and influence of his who recently cast C.K. in Blue Jasmine, is that unlike Allen, who would often give the best lines to himself whenever he starred in his own movies, C.K. is devoid of such movie/TV star vanity. He makes the off-stage self of his on-screen alter ego frequently inarticulate and not very verbose. The violin duet doesn't feature C.K. reacting to the amazingness of the duet with a crowd-pleasing one-liner or two. That's how Allen, particularly Annie Hall-era Allen, would do it. C.K. just lets the duet breathe. Or as we hip-hop heads are fond of saying, he just lets the beat ride.

The duet is a rare moment of genuine beauty in the scruffiness and frequent ugliness that both define Louie. It's also one of many moments in the arc that have made Louie viewers like myself feel like Dr. Bigelow's three-legged dog: eager to see and hear what comes next.


  1. Best soundtrack ever!

  2. I wish they would make that french duet available. First heard it in the Melissa Leo 'strap on the feedbag' episode.