The long-awaited Brooklyn location of Austin-based cinema chain the Alamo Drafthouse hadn't even been open two weeks on Nov. 10, serving up its distinctive blend of movie-centric special events, but already it needed a bigger venue: NYC's Town Hall, home to historic performances by everyone from Rachmaninov to Billie Holiday to Edna St. Vincent Millay. On this night, though, the program would involve a different sort of history: The genre-based origins of the Wu-Tang Clan mythology. Having reportedly spent a year and a half on the project, the group's RZA would perform a live musical accompaniment to the classic chopsocky film The 36th Chamber of Shaolin.
Well, he would do that eventually. Nearly an hour elapsed after the listed showtime before syndicated radio host Sway Calloway took the stage, saying he'd been sent out to fill time while "some problems" were sorted out backstage. Having recently costarred with another Wu-Tang star, Method Man, on the Luke Cage TV show, Sway kept the audience amused with stories about how the group's first records cast such a spell over his best friend that he felt he "lost" him to the Wu.
After a long and admiring introduction, RZA joined Sway in Q&A for about 15 minutes, recounting his first exposure to kung-fu cinema (he saw a double-feature of Fury of the Dragon and The Black Samurai on Staten Island before becoming a regular patron of 42nd Street's grindhouses) and explaining how the ethos displayed by ancient masters onscreen formed a template for his own personal and professional outlook. "This film has inspired me, and the reason I'm doing this today is to add that inspiration to others."
After sharing his personal Top Five martial arts films (for the record: 36th Chamber of Shaolin; Five Deadly Venoms; The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter; Mystery of Chessboxing; and "any Bruce Lee" movie), RZA stepped behind a bank of DJ equipment and the lights dimmed.
The audience might have been expecting more of a show, but the rapper kept his head down throughout, working unobtrusively with two fellow DJs in the dark; the only rapping was prerecorded, and the beats were familiar to any fan. If the idea was to accompany the film, not upstage it, RZA (and Celestial Pictures, distributor of Shaw Brothers classics like 36th Chamber) might have gone a step further and eliminated the live element entirely: Here, the sound mix often obscured dialogue, leaving those who didn't share RZA's familiarity with the film guessing about plot points. (As it would have been when RZA first saw it off Times Square, the movie was shown with crude English dubbing instead of subtitles.)
The live score was much busier than the classic one RZA composed for the 1999 Jim Jarmusch film Ghost Dog, running on the same groove for long stretches without responding much to the film's edits. (Consequently, the rare moments when the music dropped out entirely were jarring.)
But mood-wise, the story and the music were in sync. An old track by RZA, "You Can't Stop Me Now" (which was released under his Bobby Digital persona) got heavy use here, becoming arguably the evening's most hummable melody. Few sentiments could be more appropriate for a movie whose title refers to the dozens of challenges faced by Gordon Liu's San Te, a young student being tested by Shaolin instructors. The elders batter his head with sandbags, force him to carry impossible weights, and insist on superhuman dexterity, but he persists. If the song had existed in 18th century China, no doubt the real San Te would have hummed it himself through his struggle: "...no matter how hard you try, you can't stop me now...can't stop me now..."