Tim Carless did not grow up watching It's a Wonderful Life every Christmas. Raised in the British countryside by parents who didn't much favor movies, he didn't encounter the 1946 seasonal touchstone—or any cinema at all, he admits—until he moved to London as a teenager in 1985.
Not long after his arrival, though, he fell in love with film, passing days and nights alike in The Ritzy, a century-old moviehouse in Brixton. He vividly remembers the first time he saw It's a Wonderful Life: It was at The Ritzy with a friend named Joanna, and he was in his mid-20s. Carless, now 48, has since watched James Stewart wrestle with personal failure, familial complacency and near-suicide many times. In fact, George Bailey, the small-town lender played by Stewart, is one of the musician and movie buff's favorite characters.
"George's experience was outside of mine, but what the character was going through resonated with me," says Carless. "He has flaws, and it's one of the most real characters in cinema. His vulnerability and his responses are always believable."
Carless, who moved to North Carolina in 2006, is preparing to muster a response of his own to Bailey's flaws and fixes by improvising a live score to an abridged version of the film. He's working within a local quartet that's only assembled once onstage. In April, the guitarist joined bassist Casey Toll, drummer Dale Baker and pedal steel guitarist Whit Wright—a cast with impressive credentials, including Mount Moriah, Sixpence None the Richer and American Aquarium—to add impromptu accompaniment to Buster Keaton's silent classic, The General. This time, they'll up the ante, wiping both the score and the dialogue from the chestnut and adding their own musical reactions in real time.
There is a catch. Countless children accept It's a Wonderful Life as a family yuletide classic, alongside Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or A Christmas Story; in turn, they usher the declaration "Every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings" one generation closer to immortality. But as they age, the more vulnerable and mortal aspects of the film become more pronounced, like a young family struggling to find happiness amid small-town frugality and parents working to provide while holding fast to fantasies of their own. Its relationship to Christmas is largely circumstantial.
Toll saw it several times as a child but hadn't seen it in years. To begin preparing for the live performance with Carless, he watched it once again. He was surprised by what he found.
"In my mind, it had jumbled into the Christmas category of films—heartwarming, you know," Toll says. "But when I watched it again, it didn't really mean what it meant in my memory. As a kid, I didn't understand the context of wartime and an economic crisis. I didn't realize how dark it was until we started this process."
In that way, Carless agrees, It's a Wonderful Life functions as a mirror, reflecting back for the audience the troubles or delights that they bring to the screen themselves. Carless has watched the film while in a good mood and been buoyed by Bailey's candor, honesty and family; he's watched it at other points, though, and cried his way through its two hours.
"I have sobbed alone to It's a Wonderful Life," he admits with a laugh.
That emotional seesaw offers both potential risk and reward for the quartet. While Carless and Toll have both seen the movie many times, others watch it with a sort of religious fervor every holiday season. Director Frank Capra even screened it for his family each year. Over time, people have developed kinships with the characters and individual associations with plot points, relationships that they rely on renewing each Christmas.
Carless doesn't want to tamper with those personal perspectives, but he understands that what his ad hoc band adds might impact the film's presiding mood and the takeaway message. As film music expert George Harter notes, composer Dimitri Tiomkin originally wrote a complex, holistic score for It's a Wonderful Life, full of moody movements that reinforced the serial disappointments of Bailey's life. When the release date was moved forward from 1947 to the winter of 1946, attributed in part to a hope of cashing in on the plot's Christmas bookends, the studio cut much of the music.
"Tiomkin's music was too somber and dark for the film's new approach," Harter says in an essay about the score. "The cut-and-paste job on the film score worked to soften the dramatic elements and highlight the Christmas aspect of It's a Wonderful Life."
In the weeks leading up to offering their own onstage score, Toll and Carless both wrote loose melodies and themes to serve as guideposts to improvisation for select scenes. Those motifs, Carless notes, alternate between happy and sad, mining both the delight and despair of Bailey's personality and surroundings. He's unsure what the music's presiding mood will be, or even if there will be one.
The project's success, he thinks, depends on the musicians paying close attention to one another and the action on the screen. They have to respond to the environment, not the audience's emotional expectations. It's a Wonderful Life ends with the realization that, despite enormous obstacles, the title mostly holds true. If the band can summon that sentiment, Carless will be satisfied.
"I hope it provides an experience that runs concurrently with whatever people's experience of the film is already," says Carless. "With anything I do, my hope is that whoever interacts with it feels a little better than before they saw or heard it."
This article appeared in print with the headline "What wonderful life?"