A Q&A with Score Composer Paul Mac

BY JOHNNY MILNER

In May 2021, the NFSA screened the new digital restoration of The Sentimental Bloke, with a pre-recorded score composed by ARIA award-winning electronic musician Paul Mac. Afterwards, we hosted a lively discussion with Mac and NFSA curator Elena Guest. Listen below to hear more about the story behind the film, its restoration process and how Mac's music injects new sonic life into this classic silent cinematic work:

Go Deeper…

Universally praised as a crowning achievement of Australian silent cinema, The Sentimental Bloke (directed by Raymond Longford) instantly broke records at the box office on its release in 1919 and is now one of a few surviving early Australian cinematic works.

The film is based on the book of verse by CJ Dennis and follows the story of Bill (Arthur Tauchert), a wayward Woolloomooloo larrikin, and his love for Doreen (Lottie Lyell), who works in a pickle factory.

Sporting many of the narrative ingredients key to a good silent flick – such as romance, jealously, temptation and redemption – The Bloke (as it is affectionately known) was also renowned for its portrayal of a distinctly Australian character, and its pining for the pre-war period. By 1919, the streets of Sydney, Melbourne and other cities and towns were filled with thousands of maimed soldiers returning to grim prospects.

In dealing with such moments of national anxiety, audiences sought comfort through films like The Sentimental Bloke that looked back to what were perceived as less complex, and more innocent times. This short clip from the restoration (without score) features The Bloke romancing Doreen on Manly Beach:

A Sydney Time Capsule

The film is also notable for its naturalistic acting and the humour with which it portrays a working-class milieu. Shot on locations around Manly Beach and the streets of Woolloomooloo, its cinematography offers a revealing historical glimpse of Sydney in the early 20th century, showcasing people, fashion, vehicles, restaurants and theatres long since vanished.

This visual record also extends to less tangible things, such as customs, mannerisms, attitudes, emotions and simple joys and embarrassments. We can see some of these historical attributes in the clip where Bill and Doreen celebrate their marriage with a 'beano' at her mother's house. Bill's friend, Ginger Mick (Gilbert Emery) gives a tipsy speech, before the young couple departs in a hansom cab for the train.

The long road to restoration

With the arrival of sound in the 1930s, the film was largely forgotten, though a sequel (Ginger Mick, 1920) and remake (in 1932) achieved some success.

A fire at the Melbourne Film Library in 1952 destroyed all but two boxes of film archives. The boxes revealed a complete 35mm nitrate positive, which the following year was sent to a Sydney laboratory for duplication on to new 16mm acetate stock. In 1955 the Sydney Film Festival screened the new print to great acclaim. Sadly, director Raymond Longford did not attend, as the organisers were unaware he was still alive.  

With the help of NFSA Curator Emeritus Ray Edmondson, the film's original 35mm negative was discovered in 1973 at the Film Archive at George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film in Rochester, New York. And so began the long road to reconstruction and restoration, culminating in its current digital restoration with a score by Paul Mac and spoken voice-over by Rhys Muldoon.

Graham Shirley offered a detailed account of the history of the film and its 2004 reconstruction when it was released on DVD by the NFSA in 2009.

Ray Edmondson tells Warren Brown the extraordinary story of the film's recovery in 2004:

Paul Mac’s Score

Given his expertise in contemporary electronic music, Mac was a surprising choice for the film's score. In the Q&A, we hear that – although he instantly fell in love with the film – Mac wondered how to approach it musically.  

He consulted books on musical accompaniment for silent cinema. He also drew from the help of friends and other composers such as Guy Gross (known for the score for Blinky Bill among many others). Finding instruments that could connect with the different characters and themes was a key consideration – for instance, a flute for the male character and a clarinet for the female character.

Mac settled on a palette of woodwind, brass, acoustic guitar, banjo, cello, piano, percussion and electronic textures. He then began writing little motifs and lines that could form the basis of the score, using the rhythm of the film's poetry and the melodramatic elements of the acting to help guide his process.

Mac felt that the titles should be read aloud and actor Rhys Muldoon joined the project. Muldoon's quintessential Australian accent suitably complemented the film's slang and colloquial language. The result of all this is a score that balances both the old and new – and which features striking (and often comical) moments of synchronisation and audiovisual synthesis. 

You can hear an excerpt of the music Mac composed for the two-up scene in this clip.

In the clip below, Paul Mac speaks about his approach to composing the score:

You can find more about Australian film music including silent film scores in the Australian Film Music curated collection.

Watch more clips from The Sentimental Bloke and read Paul Byrnes' curator notes on australianscreen.