Tindersticks bring a live performance of their work for Claire Denis to a one-of-a-kind event at the Castro Theatre.

Tindersticks Fuel the Claire Denis Film Fire

Dennis Harvey April 26, 2011

I belatedly first became aware of Tindersticks when their “El Diablo en el Ojo”—lyrics not actually in Spanish—soundtracked the start of local filmmaker Finn Taylor's 1997 directorial debut, Dream with the Fishes, one of the greatest (and still underappreciated) indie debuts of that decade.

Cool, tense, slow-burning, with tastefully swelling strings and vocals almost whispered into your ear, it provided perfect accompaniment to the introduction of a suicidally depressed protagonist—as well as a whole feature of black comedy gradually warming toward heartfelt (but still drolly off-beat) drama. In a brilliantly music-supervised feature, that track still stood out, because its sound was not quite like any other indie-rock (let alone mainstream) outfit then out there.

Some fellow musical contributors to Dream with the Fishes were already defunct (as band units or, like Nick Drake, breathing entities) by the time the movie came out, while others faded into obscurity soon after. Tindersticks has persevered—never hazarding major commercial success, even in their native England, while remaining acclaimed and relevant.

The 20-year-old act is getting showcased in San Francisco International Film Festival's 2011 program for one ongoing collaboration in another medium: Since 1996 they've provided original music (in various capacities, as a whole group and as solo composers) for most of famed French director Claire Denis' films, offering terrifically eclectic music in service of her extremely eclectic, yet stylistically congruent films from 1996 onward. They've also contributed music to the the occasional other screen project, including Patrice Chereau's controversially explicit Intimacy (2001) and legendary HBO series The Sopranos (twice).

Tindersticks will perform excerpts from those soundtracks live at the Castro on May 2, accompanying projection of Denis scenes re-mastered so that their music has been wiped.

As a recording act, Tindersticks are the sound of a relationship's end—romantic fatalism expressed over and over in terms that often seem sonically rooted in another era. An era in which that sound was last popular: Which is to say the late 1960s, when cinematically expansive ballads with accompanying strings and brass could straddle the musical worlds of lounge, cabaret and rock/pop Top 40 without shame. Practitioners back then included fellow Anglo Scott Walker, Canuck poet Leonard Cohen (subject of a different SFIFF program this year, New Skin for the Old Ceremony, Tuesday, April 26), even twangy Yank Glen Campbell.

It's an often gorgeous, melancholic sound, dominated by the refined baritone quaver and soulfully angsty lyrics of frontman Stuart Staples, who's like Morrissey gone resolutely heterosexual and more moody than whiny. Staples began recording solo albums in 2005. Key original band member Dickon Hinchliffe, who'd orchestrated their often elaborate arrangements (and composed the score for last year's indie sensation Winter's Bone) left the following year. Yet Tindersticks has remained active, most recently releasing a box set of all six soundtracks band members composed separately or together for Denis.

San Francisco follows London, Paris and LA in the tiny roster of cities thus far graced by their related live show. It should be a major occasion, not just musically but as celebration of Denis' unpinnable cinematic output to date—ranging as it will from 1996's teenage sibling drama Nénette et Boni to naturalistic horror Trouble Every Day (2001), the marvelous multicultural ensemble piece 35 Shots of Rum (2008), and last year's US release White Material, which further explores (with the major addition of Isabelle Huppert) her recurrent fascination with the colonial Africa she was raised in.

Expect an evening of exceptional images and insinuating sounds.