Drummer Antonio Sanchez' sticks fly with Birdman

When Antonio Sanchez was a teenager in Mexico City in the mid-'80s he would sit in his grandmother's car and listen to 96.9WFM on the radio. His favourite DJs were Martin Hernandez and Alejandro Inarritu, who had a night-time show where they would play jazz and progressive music.

"One night they played this gorgeous tune," recalls Sanchez. "I'd never heard anything like it and I was totally taken aback by it. I waited for it to finish and they said it was the Pat Metheny Group."

Fast forward to 2005 and Sanchez, who started drumming at the age of five and went on to become one of the most respected jazz drummers in the world, was in Metheny's group. After a show in Los Angeles a Mexican guy walked up to him at the after-party and told him that he loved his playing. Then he introduced himself. It was Inarritu.

"It was very serendipitous, that's for sure," Sanchez says. "We hit it off right away and we stayed in touch until this whole craziness happened."

The craziness he's referring to is the soundtrack to Inarritu's 2014 film Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). The process was unorthodox, complex and innovative. When he was first approached, Sanchez decided to come up with rhythmic themes for each character.

"I sent Alejandro the demos and he said they weren't what he was looking for," says Sanchez. "He said he wanted something more organic, visceral and jazzy. When he said that, I lost a lot of the fear I had, because I'd never composed a soundtrack before. I thought, 'OK, I can do what I normally do, which is to improvise and react to my environment'."


The director and the drummer then entered a studio together. Inarritu would describe each scene in great detail, raising his hand at various points when key things happened. Sanchez, who was astounded at how clearly the director could see the film in his head, improvised as Inarritu mapped out each scene for him and the result was a series of almost 70 demos.

"He took those demos and rehearsed with them on the set so the actors would get an idea of what it would feel like with the drums underneath them on the film. So it went both ways. The script informed what I did and then what I did also informed the actors' performances in the film."

During the final recording for the finished film, the director had one last stipulation.

"He wanted the drums to sound dirtier, as if they've been in storage for 50 years, because everything in the film happens in the bowels of this old theatre. So I dampened the drums, I detuned them, I stacked cymbals to make them sound dry or broken."

Anyone who has seen Birdman will tell you that Sanchez's soundtrack is integral to the film. So when it was disqualified for Oscar contention, the director and the drummer were "surprised, mad, angry and sad". They were told that the ratio of classical music to original soundtrack was too high to make it eligible. Inarritu and Sanchez appealed after discovering the calculations the committee made were incorrect, but the disqualification remained.

"I think it was unfair," Sanchez says. "It just seemed that they didn't get it, that they thought a score done by a newbie to Hollywood on a drum set does not deserve to be there."

Sanchez has moved on by undertaking a series of triumphant improvised performances with the film playing behind him.

"It's been so much fun because people react like they're at a rock show. They go nuts after the scene where Michael Keaton trashes his dressing room and it's one of the scenes that's a lot of fun to play. And then there's the closing credits which is just me going berserk for five minutes, so it's a perfect way to finish. It's the highlight for me."

Antonio Sanchez performs to a screening of Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance) on January 15, Lennox Theatre, Parramatta, and on January 16, State Theatre, for the Sydney Festival.

More drum-heavy soundtracks

The Gene Krupa Story (1959): This biopic of the frenetic superstar drummer featured his own playing throughout, even when Sal Mineo, who portrayed him in the film, was beating the skins.

Rumble Fish (1983): Stewart Copeland, from the Police, put his distinctive syncopated style all over the Francis Ford Coppola-directed film about Rusty James (Matt Dillon) and Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke).

Man of Steel (2013): For the soundtrack to the latest Superman movie, Hans Zimmer invited a dozen of the world's best drummers – including Matt Chamberlain, Jason Bonham, Sheila E and Jim Keltner – into the studio to play at once.

Whiplash (2014): The sound of beat-heavy big band jazz provides the rhythm for this film about an aspiring drummer and his abusive teacher.