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
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.
Just like the weather – after all the most talked about subject in Cannes, besides the films and the red carpet hoopla – the 66th edition of the festival was a patchy affair. There were some true marvels that staggered people’s imaginations, interspersed with a number of average efforts, but thankfully very few real stinkers. If Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives, Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive, Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin, Abdellatif Kechiche’s Palme d’or winner Blue is the Warmest Colour and J. C. Chandor’s All Is Lost (screening out of competiton) represented the most welcome and exciting surprises, then Takashi Miike (Shield of Straw) and François Ozon (Young & Beautiful) delivered merely mediocre, and quite possibly, their least thrilling films to date in the Competition. Likewise, the three major sidebar sections – Un Certain Regard, Directors’ Fortnight and Critics’ Week – proved as strong, unpredictable and adventurous as ever, with even one or two remarkable stand-outs and smaller-scale cinematic pleasures, which could have easily rivalled the big players in the official selection. Below, Pamela Jahn revisits some of the highlights worth looking out for in UK cinemas or at other festivals in the coming months.
The Congress (Ari Folman, 2013)
Opening this year’s Director’s Fortnight, Ari Folman’s follow up to his 2008 Cannes competition entry Waltz with Bashir is an idiosyncratic masterpiece, highly ambitious in its scale and complexity, and fuelled with dazzling animated beauty. In a daringly intimate performance, Robin Wright plays herself, an acclaimed actress just past her prime with a market value diminished to zero, her previous stardom being long buried in Hollywood history. When her agent, Al (Harvey Keitel), tells her she’s being given one last chance by her studio, Miramount, Robin reluctantly agrees to a meeting, unknowing what this final offer entails. The plan is to motion-capture Wright, to copy her body, feelings, memories, and gestures in order to create a digital alter ego that can easily be adjusted to fit into any blockbuster, TV show or commercial as required by the studio. As part of the deal that promises her both a generous pay-off and the guarantee of eternal youth on screen, the real Robin Wright must retire with no claim as to how her virtual self is being used in the future. At first, she refuses, but family constraints force her to reconsider.
So far, The Congress might appear as a vicious, darkly cynical take on the movie industry in the digital age and how Hollywood treats its ageing goddesses. What then happens, however, about 50 minutes into the film, is best seen first-hand. Loosely inspired by Stanislaw Lem’s The Futurological Congress, and again combining animation and live action to puzzling effect, Folman jumps forward 20 years to find the real Wright aged and out of business, while her alter ego has become one of the biggest action heroines on screen as ‘Rebel Robot Robin’. Invited to Miramount’s Futurological Congress, the actress must pass into a strange animated zone, which opens an entirely new, imaginary universe of its own, crowded with celebrity doubles who escape their daily misery through drug-induced hallucinations; it’s a place that visually blends the style of 1930s Betty Boop cartoons and the trippy aesthetic of Ralph Bakshi’s Cool World. At the same time, Folman slows down the action to plunge into something darker, deeper, more inventive and more existential than merely teasing the Hollywood system to the core. Soused in gorgeous imagery and surreal, intoxicated melancholy, the second half of The Congress meanders gracefully between philosophical, religious and ideological reflections on the human condition, yet despite minor flaws, never loses sight of its original premise. The film is a fiercely original, bold and riveting meditation on the future of the silver screen and the stars that make it shine.
A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhangke, 2013)
Although director Jia Zhangke officially denied in interviews that his close relationship with Office Kitano was more than simply based on financial support for this production, A Touch of Sin feels like a ferocious piece of work very much in the same vein as the best films by the Japanese director and friend, albeit intensified by the social-political backdrop addressed here. Based on four real-life criminal cases (including a murder, suicide and a couple of killing sprees), Zhangke’s protagonists represent a cross section of contemporary Chinese society, from different areas of the country. Seen from that perspective, the film, which deservedly won Zhangke the award for Best Screenplay, is a sanguinary, tense investigation into the Chinese economic miracle and the brutalising effect it has on the lives of ordinary people at the bottom end of the ladder, who ultimately can’t help but vent their rage, rising up against authority, in a world not theirs. Likewise, on a visual level, A Touch of Sin is a powerful war of the senses, in the way the stylised violence seems gently aligned with the character’s innermost thoughts and emotions, enabling the audience to savour a similar cold adrenaline rush as those wuxia and Lady Vengeance-type characters on screen.
Blue is the Warmest Colour (Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013)
The winner of the Palme d’Or was the talk of the town from the moment of the first press screening until long after the award ceremony. Although most critics immediately fell in love with this oddly seductive, three-hour lesbian love saga, soon after taking home the main prize, the film was slammed by others for some oddly positioned camera angles focusing on the central character’s arse and the lengthy scenes of real-looking sex between her and her female lover, allegedly all designed for the male gaze. What’s more, Julie Maroh, author of the graphic novel the film was inspired by, has publicly expressed her disappointment about Kechiche’s adaptation, describing the sex scenes as ‘ridiculous’ and comparing them to porn. What’s true is that Kechiche does have a tendency to keep the camera pointed and rolling just a little longer and deeper than most directors would have done when it comes to depicting Adèle’s lust for life, love and home-made spaghetti.
Blue is the Warmest Colour will be released in UK Cinemas by Artificial Eye on 15 November 2013.
On the other hand, the sex aside, there simply aren’t many films that manage to keep you hooked for that sort of running time on not much more than the coming-of-age of a middle-class, high-school girl who instantly and desperately falls for a foxy art student, from the moment she spots her on the street until their painful and moving break-up as young adults. That of course is in no small part thanks to the two leads, Adèle Exarchopoulos (Carré blanc) and Léa Seydoux, who play their parts with utter conviction, guided by a script that allows them to find their own voices.
The Dance of Reality (Alejandro Jodorowsky, 2013)
Jodorowsky’s first film in over 20 years is a strictly personal affair, an attempt to reconstruct his life from childhood to the present. For most of its 130-minute running time, The Dance of Reality (La danza de la realidad) feels like a potpourri of adventures both magical and tragic but, sadly, the film meanders along a bit too nicely and gradually loses momentum in the second half. That is, of course, if you compare it to the vicious energy and boldness that his earlier midnight movie masterpieces (El Topo, Santa Sangre) generated, which clearly does this beautifully constructed and aptly surreal biopic a little injustice. Arguably, the more revealing film about the Chilean director might have been Frank Pavich’s Jodorowsky’s Dune, which premiered in the Director’s Fortnight section alongside Jodorowsky’s feature film, and is an eye-opening, highly entertaining glimpse into the truth behind Jodorowsky’s famously aborted plans to bring Herbert’s epic fantasy novel to the screen.
The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino, 2013)
Certain parallels aside (Rome, the passive journalist protagonist, the lavish life-style), The Great Beauty (La grande bellezza) is no simple remake of La dolce vita, although it might ask the same big existential question about the meaning of life in a city that, as it appears in Paolo Sorrentino’s film more than 50 years after Fellini’s, is as dazzling and captivating as ever.
The Great Beauty is released in UK Cinemas by Artificial Eye on 6 September 2013.
An ageing art journalist, one-off bestselling author and tireless gigolo, Jep Gambardella (brilliantly played by Sorrentino’s favourite and long-term collaborator Toni Servillo) knows many a secret and the entire high society in Rome, but can’t seem to make sense of his own extravagant life. At his 65th birthday party, his façade of irony and ignorance slowly begins to crumble as he bemoans the lack of ‘true’ beauty in his world of excess, luxury, endless spiel and easy women, and blatantly shares his disgust with his so-called friends and enemies, as much as with himself. The film itself is somewhat exhausting, and might seem to some superfluous from the start and preposterous in the execution, but it’s also a beautiful film about loss, death and sacrifice, and about those special, unforgettable moments you share with others that make life worth living.
Bastards (Claire Denis, 2013)
As soon as this year’s festival programme was announced in April, debates emerged about the lack of women directors in the Competition (there were none last year and only one this year), and in particular, the question over why a director as accomplished and exciting as Claire Denis would be screened in Un Certain Regard instead, which was once thought of as more of a discovery zone for new and emerging directors. And while Denis’s film clearly felt more at home in this section than Sofia Coppola’s Bling Ring, which opened Un Certain Regard, Bastards (Les salauds) could have easily competed at the top level. Denis’s latest, about a man’s doomed shot at payback for crimes committed against his family, is a puzzle-like drama of family struggles and secrets, and lives destroyed by the power of money and a ruthless businessman with a taste for vile sexual entertainment.
Artificial Eye will release Bastards in UK cinemas in Spring 2014.
Delivering a rock-solid performance, Vincent Lindon plays Marco, the lonely cowboy (or in his case, supertanker captain), whose plans for revenge are frustrated by his own emotional desires as he starts an affair with his enemy’s long-term mistress. While Bastards has a dark, gloomy allure throughout, accompanied by an intriguing score by her frequent collaborators Stuart A. Staples and Tindersticks, the fragmented, non-linear structure and opaque character development run fatally dry towards the end. It might not go down as Denis’s best works, but it’s still a film worth watching if you are familiar with, or would like to explore, the director’s contrary, elliptical style, which is full of alluring shady textures and tones.
Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, 2013)
After Jarmusch’s last film, The Limits of Control, it seemed that another great director was close to losing his genius, but there is a welcome sense of rebirth about Only Lovers Left Alive from the moment it opens. Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston make for a brilliant pair of vampire lovers who have been truly, madly, deeply in love for centuries, yet are now living apart. Swinton’s resilient and enigmatic Eve resides in lush Tangiers while Hiddleston’s disheartened underground musician, Adam, is holed up in the outskirts of derelict Detroit. When their longing for each other becomes unbearable, Eve decides to take on the difficult journey (she can only travel at night) to reunite with Adam, but soon after the couple are back together, their gently hedonistic idyll of non-murderous blood and old vinyl is disrupted by the arrival of Eve’s unnerving, uncontrollable younger sister (Mia Wasikowska).
Only Lovers Left Alive is released in UK Cinemas by Soda Pictures on 21 February 2014.
Nothing much happens in Jarmusch’s sensuous fantasy of night and nostalgia, apart from the fact that the pair are running short of the sort of pure, uncontaminated blood that they now need to keep them going. But watching these two archetypal outcasts, still in full possession of their animal instincts, as they roam around trying to blend in with their surroundings, is an undemanding, irresistible pleasure.
Watch the trailer for Only Lovers Left Alive:
Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2013)
As expected, the latest offering from the Coens was one of the hottest tickets of the festival. Inside Llewyn Davis tells the heartfelt story of an itinerant, relentlessly failing and unashamedly self-pitying folk singer in 1960s New York, loosely based on the life of Dave Van Ronk, who was at the centre of the Greenwich Village music scene. Adored by many at the time, Van Ronk never had his big breakthrough, just as Davis (Oscar Isaac) struggles to keep his head above water with occasional gigs in a tiny club called Gaslight, and with the help of his peevish ex-girlfriend (Carey Mulligan) who might, or might not be, expecting his child. But that’s only one of the many problems leading to his downfall, which culminates in a trip to Chicago to visit the legendary folk club The Gate of Horn.
Inside Llewyn Davis will be released in UK Cinemas by Studiocanal on 24 January 2014.
To a large extent, the Coens are working in known territory: a bunch of flawed, but strangely intriguing characters, dry-as-dusk dialogue and some wonderful music supervised by T-Bone Burnett, fused together into an impressively subtle, dark but magical character study that says as much about shattered dreams and the trouble with art as it does about the mystery of life and luck. What makes the film uniquely special, however, is Isaac’s riveting performance (both playing the guitar and acting), and who makes his precariously unlikable character unexpectedly compelling, as he wanders through the streets and other people’s lives, and shines whenever he’s on stage.
Watch the trailer for Inside Llewyn Davis :
Festival report by Pamela Jahn
A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews