This Year’s Lincoln Center Out of Doors Opens With a Kung Fu Movie and a Hip-Hop Icon

by delarue

This past evening’s opening concert at this year’s Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival was a score to a kung-fu movie.

It was a really good one, too. One can only imagine the kind of synchronicity involved in the Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA just being back from a national tour performing (and mixing) his lush, eclectic electroacoustic soundtrack to the 1978 Shaw Brothers martial arts classic The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. It’s populist to the core, a vengeful tale of citizens brutalized and massacred by the shock troops of a psychotic tyrant. The villain and his minions round up innocent shopkeepers, massacre students en masse and maintain a stranglehold on civil rights. How little the world changes, huh?

Beyond the flick’s sudden and sometimes bewildering jump cuts, what’s most memorable is the training the Shaolin monks go through on their way to kung fu dharma. They strengthen their arms with a water bucket drill, swords attached to their waist and pointed upward lest they let their arms waver. Likewise, a spin-the-wheel training installation delivers the same bloody slash to anyone who isn’t twirling his spear in perfect circular motion. The hero’s teachers never fail to be awed and offer praise, but the bloodstains remain. Is this a message that sadism from the top down pervades the most remote corners of society? Or were the filmmakers simply rolling with a series of gory thrills?

At the Wu-Tang Clan’s peak, it was always a mystery how much of RZA’s signature stormy cinematic backdrops were simply clever sampling, and how much was actually live. Opening the show, his old Staten Island pals John Lugo and Tom Shannon joined him, each man methodically working a laptop full of beats and loops which ranged from thunderous to funky, to spare, sometimes disintegrating into the mist. Much as there are plenty of grim scenes in the movie, RZA’s score seized on the occasionally sardonic moments, whenever they occurred, if only to lighten the overcast atmospherics.

The most relevatory moment was when RZA left his laptop and moved to a keyboard in the midde of the stage. Nonchalant and workmanlike, he began with steady, spare piano chords and took his time building a cumulo-nimbus backdrop, switching to a series of symphonic string synthesizer patches. Anyone who assumed back in the 90s that RZA was simply patchworking snippets from old soul and funk recordings might be dead wrong. Moving from behind the studio curtain, RZA affirmed his status as a major cinematic composer and a more than competent keyboardist.

There was a special guest, too: Raekwon motored in from the wings to rap the final verse of the classic Wu-Tang anthem C.R.E.A.M. about midway through the movie. A previous attempt at Lincoln Center Out of Doors to stage symphonic hip-hop – with West Coast material, last year –  fell flat. With that in mind, it was even more rewarding to see a lifelong New Yorker getting credit for a mighty success on his home turf.

The next cinema-related Lincoln Center Out of Doors show is this Friday, July 27 at 7:30 PM out back in Damrosch Park with the New York premiere of Hal Willner’s Amarcord Nino Rota, a mix of jazz talent reimagining classic Fellini  film scores from the 50s and 60s. Security is very brisk and efficient as in years past, but it still couldn’t hurt to get there early if you want a seat.