Thursday, October 13, 2011

BURIED IN SOUND: Drive, Krautrock & the 1980s

The spate of recent film soundtracks that are changing and revolutionizing the entire genre can add another to the list: the soundtrack to Nicolas Winding Refn’s extremely odd heist flick Drive. (It hit #5 on iTunes the week before the film was even released and jumped to #4 the following week.) From the bravura opening sequence (which is so powerful it threatens to render the rest of the film as a letdown) to the final mysterious -- and very bloody -- frames, we are full-body dipped in subtle electronic pulses and sleek, burbling artificial textures. If this music sounds strangely familiar to people of a certain age, the hot-pink retro opening credits "drive" it home: we are back in the golden age of 1980s film soundtracks.

Yes, the Beast is dating ourselves by this admission, but if only to add some much-needed perspective: to view any film made throughout that decade now is to notice that the synthesizer RUINED movie soundtracks -- damning and dating them from almost opening day. Being able to call up any synthetic sound and mimic any other instrument, the synthesizer was a cost-effective way of getting rid of all those pesky full orchestras and fund-draining session musicians. This corner-cutting was understandable in lower budget grindhouse films like Basket Case and art-house flicks like Smithereens, but the presence of synthesized music in a major-budget Hollywood feature was the equivalent of the filmmakers saying: Who gives a shit?

What struck the Beast about the soundtrack to Drive was that it puts such soundtracks in perspective against the rise of Electronica, the resurgence of Disco and the legacies of European experimentation. Like the opening credits, it's almost an homage to the noirish soundscapes of such Reagan-era perennials as Tangerine Dream (Risky Business, Thief), Mark Isham (Trouble In Mind, The Moderns), Giorgio Moroder (Scarface, Flashdance), Vangelis (Blade Runner, Chariots of Fire), Angelo Badalamenti (Blue Velvet, Tough Guys Don't Dance) and Harold Faltermeyer (Beverly Hills Cop, The Running Man). (Hell, we'll even add in John Hughes' stock composer Keith Forsey -- he of the trademark "breathing synth" sound from The Breakfast Club.)

The fact that two of those aural auteurs mentioned are German-born is not a coincidence: Cliff Martinez, Drive's soundtrack composer, came of musical age during the mid-70's reign of Kraftwerk, Neu! and Can. His marriage of German motorik with the lush cheesiness (Pitchfork's Zach Kelly called it "neon camp") of a bygone American era creates a strange tension in the film that seems both dreamlike and brutally cold.

Taking into account the near-mute relationship between leads Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan, Martinez's score speaks for the characters in a way even they can't. As the Boston Herald's James Verniere agrees: "The Drive soundtrack is such an integral part of the experience of the film, once you see it, you can’t imagine the film without it."

Indeed, some of the more memorable contributions to Drive -- the ominous "Nightcall" by French producer Kavinsky (with vocals by Lovefoxxx of Brazilian danceniks CSS), Desire's "Under Your Spell," College's "A Real Hero" -- are not Martinez's; a behind the scenes snafu actually had two competing soundtracks from Martinez and Desire's Johnny Jewel. Martinez won out, and although it would be fascinating to watch the film with Jewel's original score, Martinez's pedigree is hard to ignore.

For a film that takes place in Los Angeles, Martinez made his musical bones drumming in at least THREE seminal L.A. bands -- The Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Weirdos, The Dickies -- while also playing on albums by Lydia Lunch and Captain Beefheart. Like fellow L.A. art-punker Danny Elfman, he found his way to the more lucrative world of movie soundtracks. Again, his credits here are noticeably strong: sex, lies and videotape (1989), Traffic (2000), Narc, Solaris (2002), Wicker Park (2004) and this year's one-two punch of The Lincoln Lawyer and Contagion. In some of these cases, Martinez's scores are the only parts worth remembering.

Of course, most of these movies were directed by Steven Soderbergh, who met the Bronx-born, Ohio-reared Martinez in April 1988 while the director was in pre-production for sex, lies. Martinez was still drumming for The Dickies but had already begun his first forays into film by doing source cues for the James Caan sci-fi flick Alien Nation. Years earlier he had discovered that bane of 1980's music, the drum machine, while recording a Chili Pepper album with George Clinton, fascinated that the device "held the potential of an entire band within a box." He put together a Zappa-esque sound collage that caught Soderbergh's ears.

And the rest was movie history -- even though it would take the public and critics another fifteen years to catch up with what Martinez was doing. His tinkerer's obsessions (he custom-constructs his own instruments and pillages junkyards to find his materials) and his years of finding the intersecting points in seemingly incongruous musical genres puts him in a tradition of iconoclastic Cali composers like Harry Partch and Henry Cowell. (All three have an obsession with Indonesian gamelan music.) It's also why even his older soundtracks don't sound half as dated as the composers mentioned above. Call it "hindsight towards the future." Hell, call it Oscar-worthy.

Read the Los Angeles Times profile of Cliff Martinez here.

Read our friend Greg Burk's 2003 L.A. Weekly profile of Cliff Martinez here.

Watch Ain't It Cool News' video interview with Cliff Martinez here.

Read Staticblog's interview with Cliff Martinez here.

Read The Offline People's interview with Cliff Martinez here.

Watch another interview with Martinez from Film Music magazine.

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