Tag Archives: film scores

The Neon Demon: Interview with Cliff Martinez

Neon Demon 2
The Neon Demon

Format: Cinema

Seen at Cannes 2016

Release date: 8 July 2016

Distributor: Icon Film Distribution

Director: Nicholas Winding Refn

Writers: Mary Laws, Nicolas Winding Refn, Polly Stenham

Cast: Elle Fanning, Karl Glusman, Jena Malone, Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves

France, Denmark, USA 2016

117 mins

The composer and musician talks about working with Steven Soderbergh and Nicolas Winding Refn, his earliest movie music experiences and why the greatest scores can’t save a bad film from its downfall.

Cliff Martinez started his career drumming for Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Captain Beefheart before making his big leap into cinema, writing the music for Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies & Videotape, The Limey, Traffic and Solaris, . He’s since formed a close bond with Nicolas Winding Refn, composing the scores for Drive and Only God Forgives. Their latest collaboration, Refn’s shiny new offering The Neon Demon, which premiered at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, has an intriguing, pulsing electronic score that is haunting and emotional in equal measure, while the film itself unexpectedly divides critics and audiences alike.

Pamela Jahn spoke to the composer and musician about working with Steven Soderbergh and Nicolas Winding Refn, his earliest movie music experiences and why the greatest scores can’t save a bad film from its downfall.

The Neon Demon is your third collaboration with Nicolas Winding Refn. Did the fact that it features women rather than men in the lead role, which is quite unusual compared to Refn’s work in the past, change your way of approaching the music for this film?

Cliff Martinez: No, Nicolas had told me very early on in the process, ‘This is going to be a very different film because the subject is going to be women.’ And when he told me that, I was curious what it would be like. But then when I got to saw the film and I saw the shower scene and things like that, I thought, ok, so that’s how Nicholas is making a film about women, of course. So, no, for me it didn’t feel so much different. It was more a departure for Nicholas himself, I think.

Do you think there is a specific link between electronic music and fashion in the way those two worlds seem to complement each other?

Oh, I never thought of that, but it’s an interesting idea. Maybe there is some sort of connection, I don’t know.

The music to Drive is widely regarded as one of the greatest scores of its time. Did it feel special to you when creating it?

I loved Drive from the minute I saw it, but I don’t think anyone imagined at the time how successful the film was going to be, or at least certainly I didn’t have a clue. It was just a great project to be working on. I’ve never really grasped quite why that particular score got so popular. And I’m still kind of fascinated by the fact that in my 25 years of working as a composer, that’s the one score that people keep talking about.

In 2014, the BBC created a televised re-score of the original Drive soundtrack – what did you make of that new version?

I’ve heard of it but I’ve never actually seen this new version, so I don’t know. I heard that it was re-scored but that’s about it.

You also worked with Nicolas on Only Good Forgives, which has these great karaoke moments. Were you involved in creating these scenes?

As I recall it, the script and the actual film turned out very different from each other, but I think the karaoke material was there from the very beginning. I remember that it was the first thing that I did when I started working on the project. I usually don’t come in until the film has been shot but this time the ground floor was really the script, because there were several karaoke scenes that they needed the music for so they could shoot. I’d never done any karaoke for film before and I remember in the beginning Nicolas had this idea about iconic country western songs but then he decided to go with Thai music instead. So, I think I created five of these Thai karaoke tracks, each track was then tested and got changed several times to be performed at the karaoke bar, but in the end I think we used the original tracks.

You started your career as a composer working with Steven Soderbergh. Was he your first sort of soulmate in cinema, in a similar way that Nicolas seems to be now?

I don’t know, we just seem to work together very well. We seem to agree on films, their philosophy, musical genres and so on. We have a similar taste, I guess.

You’re currently working with Soderbergh on the TV series The Knick. Does it make a difference to you if you compose for the big or small screen, apart from the fact that it’s a longer process?

That’s the thing, it’s more exhausting than feature-film work but, in the end, it just feels like a ten-hour Soderbergh film to me. But there are some differences as well, I guess, one of which being that you have to mix the score so it sounds right on very small speakers, because most people will see it on their normal TV at home. And you also really have to develop your theme and your emotional peaks and stretch them over ten hours as opposed to two hours.

You are working across the board, from cinema to TV and video games. How do you choose your projects?

To be honest, it’s more that people chose me rather than me selecting things. Directors like Steven, Nicolas or Harmony Korine, for whom I composed the score for Spring Breakers, have asked me to score their films. So I feel that if I have worked on these great projects, it’s not so much because of my decisions, but because people have chosen me and trusted me with what I can bring to their work.

Was there a score when you were younger that first made that feeling, that relationship between music and movies, click for you?

There are a couple of films or film scores that come up actually, like the old scores by Bernard Herrmann and especially Ennio Morricone. One of the first film scores that I owned on vinyl when I was young was A Fistful of Dollars. Another thing that resonated with me from the beginning was the TV show Saturday Night at the Movies. I would watch The Day the Earth Stood Still three or four times a year, and the music just got to me, I listened to it every time it came on.

A film might be flawed but the music can still be brilliant. What do you think the score can bring to the movie as a whole?

Well, the score depends on the film. The music has a significant role, especially if there is not much dialogue. People turn to the music to maybe explain a bit more about what’s going on.

Do you think a great score can save a film from being terrible?

No, I don’t think the music has the power to salvage a terrible film, but I do believe it has the ability to completely transform a film. It’s hard to explain what it is, I didn’t understand it myself until I saw a film without music and then with the music, but when you do that, you can appreciate the power of music. But still, I think it’s a bit of a stretch to say that music can rescue an utterly flawed film and turn it into an entertaining, successful film – no musical score can do that.

Interview by Pamela Jahn

Watch the trailer:

Full of Sound and Fury: The Tragedy of Macbeth

The Tragedy of Macbeth

Back in the early 70s, the Third Ear Band were the festival band. Wherever there was mud, cider and an outdoor PA system, there would be Glenn Sweeney’s merry band with their strings and their hand drums, wigging out on some epic jam which somehow managed to blend together the collective folk music of half the world. Curiously, only when they were asked to provide an explicitly period soundtrack did they find it necessary to add an electronic synthesizer to their line-up. Simon House, later of Hawkwind, joined the group for the Macbeth soundtrack and left shortly after. He played a VCS-3, a keyboard-free analogue synth beloved of Brian Hodgson and Delia Derbyshire (not to mention Karlheinz Stockhausen), and designed in London by the composers Tristram Cary and Peter Zinovieff (with engineer David Cockerell).

This sudden addition of electricity to the previously acoustic group seems to suggest an understanding that the sheer macabre weirdness of Shakespeare’s play – especially as interpreted by Roman Polanski and Kenneth Tynan – demanded something other, some element of fantasy that went beyond what could be notated on manuscript paper.

For a group whose previous compositions averaged close to 10 minutes in length, the Third Ear Band are here remarkably restrained. The extended prog-rock ragas of Alchemy and its eponymous sequel are here compressed to clips of but a few seconds’ length. And for most of the play’s first act, they stick to a fairly straight medievalism, the pentatonic melismas of Paul Minns’s oboe doing a serviceable imitation of a twelfth-century shawm. The only note of something sinister – and obviously anachronistic – comes from the bass playing of Paul Buckmaster: one minute plunging into psych head music, the next evoking the drones of the tambura in Hindustani classical music. This soundtrack was Buckmaster’s only recording with the Third Ear Band, a performance turned in between arrangement work on Leonard Cohen’s Songs of Love and Hate and Miles Davis’s On the Corner.

As Shakespeare’s story grows darker and weirder, so too does the music. While Macbeth contemplates murdering Duncan, a fizzling hum of shuddering VCS-3 and scraping guitar noise underscores the famous ‘Is this a dagger I see before me?’ soliloquy. Upon the deed itself, a wild dervish of free improvisation. As the film draws towards its conclusion, with the army approaching upon the hill and mist engulfing the screen, a thick fog of dissonance drifts in likewise, seemingly emerging directly from precisely the kind of snaking modal oboe line which had once seemed to speak of happier times. As Macbeth finally meets his end, high tremolando violin merges with more VCS-3 in a pitch of piercing tinnitus.

The Third Ear Band’s music for this film has been compared to both the chamber music of György Ligeti and Masaru Sato’s soundtrack to Kurosawa’sThrone of Blood(1957). The Tragedy of Macbeth has often been called the bloodiest of all Shakespeare films. With its murderous tones, forever teetering on the edge of some horror, this music may be bloodier still.

Robert Barry

The Tindersticks’ Film Jukebox

The Tindersticks (Photo by Christophe Agou)

Not only have The Tindersticks long had an affiliation with film – dreamy, countrified soundscapes and orchestrated backing featuring on many albums – but they’ve also written many soundtracks for filmmaker Claire Denis, including 35 Shots of Rum, Trouble Every Day, Nénette et Boni and White Material. They release their new nine-track album The Something Rain on Lucky Dog on 20 February 2012. You can see them play live at Soho Theatre, London, during their four-night residency from 22 to 25 February. The band also play several European dates in March and co-headline End of the Road Festival, UK, in August/September. For more information please go to the Tinderticks website. The list below was compiled by long-standing Tindersticks member David Boulter. Delia Sparrer

1. Get Carter (1971)
Most of my favourite films are, like this, ones I saw growing up. I’d have been around 13 when I first saw this, and it amazed me. Michael Caine at his best. Wonderfully shot around Newcastle and Gateshead. With a great Harold Budd score, which took me about five years to find and cost me a month’s wages. The beautiful Britt Ekland as well, giving a young boy sleepless nights.

2. The Wicker Man (1973)
[SPOILER ALERT] Another film I saw around 12-13. I grew up watching the Hammer horrors and loved Christopher Lee’s Dracula. This film’s much darker. Pagan sacrifice of Edward Woodward, the policeman virgin, to save Summer Isle and bring a fruitful harvest. Great story, great characters. Another great score. And more sleepless nights from Britt.

3. Kes (1969)
The story of a boy growing up in Yorkshire with nothing and little future until he gets a falcon to look after. It could be my school and a boy in my class. Shows life in the early 70s perfectly. A beautiful film, yet another beautiful score, impossible to find until Johnny Trunk came along with his wonderful releases.

4. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)
Another big event growing up was the Bond films. The first I actually saw at the cinema was The Man with the Golden Gun, another Britt – Christopher Lee pairing. But most memorable were Sean Connery’s, usually shown at Christmas or Bank Holidays, when trips would be cut short to get home in time to watch them. Strangely, this isn’t Sean, but George Lazenby, in his only outing as Bond (or anyone really). Still my favourite. Great music from John Barry. The best story for me, and the wonderful Diana Rigg. When I first left home, the chap I lived with had a video recorder, which not many people had at the time. He had this on tape and I watched it every night for about a month.

5. Carry On… Up the Khyber (1968)
I love Sid James, I can watch him in anything. Like James Bond, Carry On films were a big part of my childhood. I probably didn’t get all the jokes, but they still made me laugh. It’s hard for me to choose a favourite, this and Screaming I have the most memories of. This one probably has the best story. And the great stiff upper lip dinner scene – very ‘British’.

6. The Ladykillers (1955)
Beautiful film about a gang of criminals foiled by a little old lady. A simple story, made so wonderful by the characters and great performances. I was a big fan of Ealing films, especially their comedies.

7. Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960)
Arthur Seaton became my hero, but I was more like Colin, the character in another of Alan Sillitoe’s stories and another great film, Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. I saw Saturday Night and Sunday Morning first and loved it. Set in Nottingham, where I grew up. One of my cousin’s actually in the film, a child in the street.

8. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)
I’d already seen A Fistful of Dollars, which I loved too. I remember being excited all week waiting for this. I’d be about 12. It was on late on a Friday, so I was allowed to stay up and watch it. I remember my Dad coming home from the pub with fish and chips for us. An epic film. I went out and got the soundtrack shortly afterwards too. I drove my Mum crazy with it.

9. Darling (1965)
I was a big fan of Dirk Bogarde, some people said I even looked like him. I saw this and The Servant around the same time, again early teens. Also the beautiful Julie Christie and Laurence Harvey. I think this film had a big influence on me, and a story I wrote later, called ‘My Sister’.

10. Women in Love (1969)
I’d read a lot of D.H. Lawrence at school. I was madly in love with Glenda Jackson after this – more sleepless nights. We’ve planned a video of the wrestling scene for a while. Stuart’s fireplace is very similar to that in the film. Dan, our bass player, looks very Alan Bates too.

Barry Adamson’s Film Jukebox

Barry Adamson

For the first Film Jukebox compiler of 2012, who better than Barry Adamson, writer of imaginary film soundtracks (see 1988’s Moss Side Story) and a musician who’s long been associated with cinematic sounds. Known for his work with Magazine, The Bad Seeds and other luminaries of various music scenes as well as having written the score for an award-winning ballet, Adamson has also garnered a nomination for the Mercury Prize, won prizes for his short stories and even written and directed a movie. His new album I Will Set You Free is released on 30 January 2012 and he plays the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 9 February 2012. Download the taster track ‘Destination’ from Barry Adamson’s website. Delia Sparrer

1. Taxi Driver (1976)
Director Martin Scorsese’s 1976 urban masterpiece begins with Travis Bickle’s (Robert De Niro) taxi emerging into the cinema frame, all fire and brimstone; cruising through the ‘foul’ landscape that will see him set out on a deranged crusade. This movie is the ultimate depiction of alienation, obsession and perverse desire, where reality is played out as an insomniac nightmare of rejection and racial hatred and the need to save mankind’s angel/whore as Travis’s angst builds into an apex of horror. An amazing study of ‘God’s lonely man’. The screenplay by Paul Schrader and the score by Bernard Hermann begin and finish one of the greatest films ever made.

2. Seconds (1966)
Arthur Hamilton becomes Tony Wilson but regrets it, too late, before meeting a surreal, eerie fate. Extraordinary 1960s black and white paranoia movie bearing depressing truths about today, with its theme of transformation through plastic surgery. Using distortion and exaggeration, cameraman James Wong Howe and director John Frankenheimer reveal the mind of a man who is struggling to break free from an emotional straightjacket, by painting a frightening picture of a dehumanised and controlling world, where, ultimately, fulfilment cannot be found by changing the outside.

3. Humanity (1999)
A beautifully mundane film displaying director Bruno Dumont’s trademark cinematographic blend of lush widescreen landscapes, glossy-eyed close-ups and clinically objective (and graphic) staging of sex to personify his idealised vision of ‘the ordinary people, who don’t speak a lot, but who experience an incredible intensity of… Emotion’. Pharaon de Winter (Emmanuel Schotté) is an incompetent detective, who longs desperately to connect with humanity but is frustrated at every turn. This is intense tedium observed with clinical precision.

4. Enter the Void (2009)
Gaspar Noé shocked everybody with Carne, Seul contre tous and Irréversible. With Enter the Void, he creates a magnificently deranged melodrama that surrounds the tragic and strange relationship of Oscar (Nathaniel Brown) and his sister, Linda (Paz de la Huerta). This is a tripped-out journey into and out of hell: drugged, neon-lit and with a fully realised nightmare-porn aesthetic that has to be seen to be believed. Unlike anything seen before, it has a vitality and originality that are at once bold and strikingly inspiring.

5. Mirror (1975)
Stifled by the Soviet Union due to its ‘confused narrative’ and therefore not getting a proper release at the time, Tarkovsky’s Mirror, indeed appears at first to be a hotchpotch of ideas thrown together. In this dreamlike and evocative film, childhood memory is pitted against newsreels of war and left open for the viewer to pin their own childhood onto. Mirror represents the closest Tarkovsky would ever come to total abandonment of what many people would consider the most important aspect of any film – a coherent story! There are sequences in this film that are breathtaking and it deserves watching again and again.

6. Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970)
Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is haunting and magical. It’s a deeply strange film, constantly subverting narrative clarity and demanding that its images be taken as metaphors rather than at face value. It charts the story of Valerie’s (Jaroslava Schallerov&#225) transformation from child to adult through the onset of puberty, which is expressed as a nightmarish fantasia, a dreamlike fairy tale populated with vampires, grisly violence and lurid sexuality. A genius tripped-out tale of innocence kept, with one of the great film scores by Lubos Fischer.

7. Performance (1970)
Performance stands out as being (at the time) the most visually daring major studio film dealing with questions of sanity and identity rarely touched on in mainstream filmmaking. A gangster on the run (James Fox) hides out in the home of a reclusive rock star (Mick Jagger). Co-directors Nicolas Roeg (who also photographed) and Donald Cammell (who wrote the screenplay) explore self-discovery through sex, drugs and violence. The film’s madness unfolds in a bizarre unconventional examination that many baulked at but that suits its themes perfectly, giving them real cohesion and truth. The score by Jack Nitzsche is brilliant too.

8. Mother and Son (1997)
Alexander Sokurov’s extraordinarily lyrical film is a beautiful and tender exploration of the deep affection between an ailing mother and her devoted adult son. In a hauntingly beautiful landscape, which Sokurov’s camera transforms into stunning cinematic canvases, the pair recall happier times as the dutiful son lovingly nurses his mother in her final hours. Often this movie feels like watching paint dry in a most exquisite, almost narcotic way. Slow, ponderous and genius.

9. In Cold Blood (1967)
I came to this story written by Truman Capote and directed by Richard Brooks via its Quincy Jones score. It’s the story of Perry Smith (Robert Blake) and Dick Hickock (Scott Wilson), who, after a botched robbery, kill a whole family, are caught, and then tried. Capote wrote the whole thing from memory after befriending Smith on jail visits and then interviewing the townsfolk. Four Oscar nominations later, this remains a great re-telling of something truly awful.

10. Psycho (1960)
Alfred Hitchcock was a sly genius who scared audiences out of their lives (and showers) with Psycho. Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) steals from her boss and goes on the run, ending up at The Bates Motel, where Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) takes her in. The nightmarish, disturbing film’s themes of corruptibility, confused identities, voyeurism, human vulnerabilities and victimisation, the deadly effects of money, Oedipal murder and dark past histories are realistically revealed through repeated uses of motifs such as birds, eyes, hands and mirrors. Bernard Hermann scores a motif that would end up (at Scorsese’s request) in his Taxi Driver score too!

Barry Adamson and band play the QEH, London Southbank, on 9 February 2012.

Underwater Love: Interview with Stereo Total

Underwater Love

Format: DVD

Release date: 21 November 2011

Distributor: Third Window Films

Director: Shinji Imaoka

Writers: Shinji Imaoka, Fumio Moriya

Original title: Onna no kappa

Cast: Sawa Masaki, Yoshirô Umezawa, Ai Narita

Japan 2011

87 mins

Stereo Total are a playful, madly eclectic duo, who like synth pop, new wave and electronica, and Françoise Hardy and Jacques Dutronc. They are proud of the fact that even though they’ve made a lot of records ‘they all sound the same’ and they ‘have made so little progress’.

For a person who hasn’t had a huge amount of sleep in the past few days, Brezel Göring, one half of Stereo Total, is brimming over with enthusiasm for their latest project, the film score of Underwater Love, directed by Shinji Imaoka. Described by an equally exuberant Christopher Doyle (In the Mood for Love, Chungking Express), who was the cinematographer on this fast-paced project, as a musical comedy with sex and dancing, Underwater Love is a pink film – soft-core porn – filmed in five and a half days (it’s usually five for a pink film, but Doyle was given a little leeway) and tells the story of Asuka (Sawa Masaki), who’s about to marry her boring boyfriend but has an erotic romance with a water spirit instead. Producer Stephan Holl approached the duo, and they couldn’t turn the chance of writing their first film score down. Göring says: ‘He connected all the loose ends, chased down all these people who would never have thought of being involved in such a project and got them to do it. And I’m always excited about working on things which are different.’

Stereo Total, who ‘more or less make music that [they] want to listen to’ had no idea what a pink film was, so Holl sent over a pile of DVDs and he and Françoise Cactus, the other half of the band, sat down and watched them. It was a bit of an eye-opener. ‘I was really insistent that I didn’t want to make music for a movie where young girls aren’t treated well, because, you know, in some Japanese movies that’s really common, they can be really violent, but I thought this was funny and original. I loved the girl with the big tits, with the sunburn (another love interest of the water spirit), and the hippy God of Death was fun.’

The filming may have been speedy, but the musical part took a little longer. ‘Three years, I think,’ says Göring. ‘We got the storyboard and then we did the music and then the singing.’ Cactus sings the lyrics in Japanese: ‘I know that I have a French accent when I speak, so I was a bit worried about that, but I had a Japanese teacher and she told me how to pronounce the words, and everybody seemed to think it was funny.’ Göring had finished the music ‘and then the whole script was re-written…’

He wrote more music than was used, cut out background stuff, and had a little go at making the music accompanying the sex scenes ironic. He grappled with the fact that some of the cinematography veers from the incredibly sophisticated and atmospheric to the resolutely lo-fi, and fought against the idea that most directors want the score to sound like Schubert. ‘I was surprised that so much of our music ended up in the movie, it was so exciting. As a band we have such a dilettante, un-academic, anti-professional approach, we always feel that’s it’s going to be wrong, if things are going right from the start. We like uncontrollable situations like this.’

Eithne Farry

Phase IV: Synthphony for the Ant Nation

Phase IV

Phase IV opens up somewhere between a 1970s educational nature programme and the ‘book’ sections of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy played straight, so it is apt that its music would initially recall the darker moments from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop: the shimmering waves of Delia Derbyshire’s ‘Blue Veils and Golden Sands’; Malcolm Clarke’s blocks of ring-modulated dissonances for the Dr Who episode ‘The Sea Devils’; and Workshop manager Desmond Briscoe’s spectral driftworks for the soundtrack to the BBC’s original Quatermass and the Pit. So it comes as little surprise that Briscoe himself is credited as having provided ‘additional electronic music’, and much of the electronic realisation has been done by EMS synthesizers enthusiast David Vorhaus, who had worked with Delia Derbyshire on the first White Noise album.

Amid the almost constant bed of electronic drones provided by Vorhaus and Briscoe, the brief fragments of instrumental music are like floating islands of humanity in an increasingly alien world. With its mordant strings, chiming bells and distant brass doubled by distorted guitar, the score could almost be mistaken for a new version of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, as completed by Scott Walker. Ten years later, the film’s composer, Brian Gascoigne, would provide orchestral arrangements and play keyboards on Walker’s album Climate of Hunter (Gascoigne is an ARP 2600 man), thus beginning a relationship that would continue up to his recent role, crafting sound treatments on Walker’s last studio album, The Drift.

As the film progresses, this latter music becomes ever more a means to encourage the audience to identify, not with the human protagonists, but with the rapidly evolving ants. One scene in particular in which a solitary ant walks solemnly down neat lines of fallen comrades is rendered especially tragic by Gascoigne’s arrangements. If at the start of the film the ants are a symbol for the Soviets, the invading utopian hive mind, by the end, as they struggle heroically to adapt and survive, it is the ants that represent America, one nation under God. For the humans, sound soon becomes itself a weapon, a filtered attack of white noise, not just upon the ant colony, but used equally offensively against the audience.

Electric Sheep and Strange Attractor are excited to present Phase IV as part of Scalarama. For more Information check our Events & Media section.

Robert Barry