For the first half of the twentieth century, Ellis Island stood as the gateway to America. For some twelve million people, it was their first encounter with the land they hoped to call home.
Directed by acclaimed artist JR, ELLIS tells the story of one such migrant. Starring Robert De Niro, the film winds its way through the crumbling hallways of the abandoned Ellis Island hospital complex, now home to JR’s Unframed art installation. It’s a place that reverberates with the hopes and fears of those who passed through it, the echoes especially resonant today.
Entwined with the narrative is a score composed by Woodkid, performed and co-written by Nils Frahm. The delicate piano motifs of Winter Morning I culminate in a crescendo of strings, while the harmonium swells on the B-side are the foundation for De Niro’s narration: an encomium for those who shaped modern America.
There’s perhaps never been a more fitting time for this story, with all the proceeds going to the Sea Watch initiative, a non-profit charity dedicated to the protection and rescue of civilian refugees.
Following a screening as part of Nils’s Barbican Weekender, the ELLIS score will be out July 8th, the same week as America’s great federal holiday. It will be available as a mini album on CD, vinyl and in digital format containing a 12-page picture booklet.
Nils Frahm: ‘The opportunity to work on JR´s fantastic short film ELLIS came through my good friend Yoann aka Woodkid. We agreed on recording the piano parts in my studio in Berlin and so it happened that JR and Woodkid were guests at Durton studio on a wonderful late summer day in 2015. We managed to record all the crucial elements that day. The music fell in our laps and melted with the images: a wonderful experience. The film has stuck in my head ever since; it moved my heart and changed my soul.
A couple of weeks later I had to cancel a trip to Brussels because of a terror warning; all events got cancelled and I stayed home, having an unexpected day off. I felt rather depressed that day, thinking that the Europe I knew was already gone. I sat down at the harmonium, listened to Robert De Niro’s voice and played for the rest of the day. The result is ‘Winter Morning II,’ the B-side of the ELLIS soundtrack release.
Robert says it all in 17 minutes. We are not facing a refugee crisis. We are facing a crisis because we do not embrace, we do not sympathise and we cannot give up fear. Art can encourage so I hope this project will help fight the fear in all of us.’
Yoann Lemoine, aka Woodkid: ‘Ellis is my second collaboration with JR after the New York City Ballet piece for Les Bosquets. I initially wanted this piece to sound like it was recorded on an old piano that we found in the ruins of Ellis Island, in the restricted area that is not open to the public, where JR pasted the pictures on the walls for the film Ellis.
I had worked with Nils before and I wanted him to create a sound for this piano part that I composed that was extremely gentle and organic. I wanted the listener to hear the mechanisms, the breathing of the instrument. I wanted it to be imperfect, to sound like a ruin, a trace, an echo, the way the pastings on the walls seem to be ghosts, almost imperceptible.
After a few rehearsals, Nils stripped down my piano parts and we removed almost all orchestration around the piano. He then worked on the extended version that is his interpretation of my piece, with Robert de Niro’s vocals.
Because this film and this recording is historically meaningful, it was important for us to create this piece as an echo to the immigration situation in Europe, and decided to release it in support of Sea Watch.’
JR is the pseudonym of a French artist, director and photographer whose identity is still unknown, and who has been described as the 'French Banksy’. His large scale black-and-white portraits are among the most iconic in contemporary street art, drawing our attention to stories that might otherwise be forgotten. Unframed, which features prominently in both the film and the album booklet, does just this, memorialising through photographic prints those who came through Ellis Island. ‘Trying to see and understand our past better,’ he says, ‘is a good way to understand what’s going on right now and maybe face our future.’ May 29th will see JR and Nils Frahm collaborate again when Nils and Erased Tapes peer Ólafur Arnalds take part in his takeover of the world famous Louvre museum in Paris.
01 Winter Morning I
02 Winter Morning II (with Robert De Niro)