In 1932, experiencing a midlife crisis aggravated by the coming of the talkies, Chaplin decides not to return to Hollywood after his promotional tour of Europe for his movie City Lights. Instead, with his brother Sydney, he "escapes" to Bali. The island seems to be a peace haven as he is virtually unknown there. Fascinated by the serene lifestyle of its inhabitants, Chaplin finds rejuvenation and inspiration in their dances, which he films extensively with the help of his brother. The Balinese way of life and culture resonate with him. Chaplin dances with the Balinese, precisely mimicking their dance movements that surprisingly echo his own art of pantomime. Most importantly, Bali helps him resolve his fear of sound, thus enabling him to embark on a new phase of filmmaking that will lead him to Modern Times, the first movie in which he does even better than speak - he sings! Yet, this moment of epiphany in Bali is not pure naivety on the part of Chaplin, as he also encounters the colonial world first hand and is able to perceive its dark side. This even leads him to write the script of a virulently anti-colonial film, which he never films, but contributes to further his political awakening and reinforce his dislike of any form of domination.
“As for the archetype of the delicate and feminine, the legong is the finest of Balinese dances."
Miguel Covarrubias, Island of Bali, 1937
Legong is one of the most internationally famous forms of Balinese dance, known for its refined and intricate finger movements and footwork, as well as for it extremely expressive gestures and facial expressions, all of it creating a very highly stylized pantomime. It seems to have evolved in the 19th century from older dance forms. The legendary origin of the dance tells a story of a young Balinese prince, who while sick, dreamt of maidens dancing to gamelan music. Upon waking, he arranged for such dances to be performed. The legong may have also originated from the sanghyang dedari, a trance dance of two little girls possessed by beneficent spirits. Legong became popular in the 1920s and 1930s with early tourists to Bali, among whom were Charles and Sydney Chaplin.
Classical legong can enact up to at least 15 different traditional stories, the most common being inspired by the Malat, a collection of heroic romances. The King of Lasem who was at war with another king, the father of the Princess Rangkesari, whom he hopes to marry. Unwilling to marry the King the princess runs away into the jungle. The King captures her, before launching a final assault on her family but he is attacked by a monstrous raven who defeats him.
Traditionally, the dance is performed by three young girls who would begin rigorous training from about the age of five to be able to perform the dance before reaching puberty. The two main little dancers would be accompanied by a third dancer wearing simpler clothes playing the role of the attendant (the condong), who would open the show, set the stage for the other two main dancers with their fans, and later plays the part of the raven.
The legong kupu-kupu tarum is a particular form of legong that was practised in the village of Bedulu in the '20s and '30s. This is the dance Charles and Sydney Chaplin watched at the Pura Samuan Tiga in Bedulu.
This rare legong dance was revived in early 2016 by Ayu Bulantrisna Djelantik (the film's choreographer), Diane Butler and Ni Ketut Arini at Pura Samuan Tiga itself. The young dancers watched the 1995 footage of two old dancers, Ni Wayan Ciglek and Jero Made Pukel, the two dancers who had performed for the Chaplins in 1932.
Comparing Chaplin's 1932 footage with the 1995 footage, the dancers are easily recognisable, despite their senior years.
The film's main theme song (which also serves as the film's opening music score titled Indonesian Ensemble) was composed and performed by Teo Wei Yong, a Singaporean musician known for his versatile talent at scoring film music. Teo also composed and performed other pieces such as Silent Film Blues, A New Art Form, Journey Theme (which is the recurring music used to evoke the voyage), United Artists, After Years, Bali Theme, Eyedrop, Revue and Exile.
The piano music was composed and performed by French musician Camille Fabre, with pieces exploring pentatonic scales typical of many Asian musical traditions. Fabre's pieces include music titled Voyage en pentatonie and Variations autour d'un voyage en pentatonie. She composed and performed Chaplin 1932, L'Invitation au voyage and Mélancolie Chaplin.
The original gamelan music so typical of Bali and used to accompany most of the dance scenes in the film was performed by the gamelan orchestra Sekaa Gong Dewi Sri, headed by Nyoman Sumerta. It is the music of the Legong Kupu-Kupu Carum, which the modern day dancer in the film, Ni Wayan Phia Widari Eka Tana, danced to.