I’ve recently begun contributing to The Essential, a great new Australia film/music site. My first contribution was found in the middle of a Writer’s Roundtable asking the question “What is your favourite score/soundtrack and why?” The whole article is definitely recommended, with my colleagues producing some great responses, but my answer is included below:
I feel ill-equipped to answer this question because, honestly, film soundtracks tend to escape my attention. I take Matt Zoller Seitz’s point that when writing about film, talking about form is imperative, but I find myself so rarely consciously aware of a good score (while a terrible one is impossible to ignore). Great scores burrow under your skin, seep into your consciousness and shape your reaction to a film with a careful complement to the narrative and visuals. The best soundtracks I’ve heard are the ones that that I don’t even remember hearing.
Ah, but the question is to identify your favourite soundtrack or score, so perhaps I can disregard this obstruction. The first score that comes to mind is nigh impossible to ignore; Bernard Hermann’s last composition, his soundtrack for Scorsese’s masterpiece, Taxi Driver. Those horns! It’s anxiety incarnate, blaring and guffawing and creating an unnerving, paranoiac prism through which to filter Travis Bickle’s warped worldview, his panicky heartbeats found in the staccato drums. I hated it on first listen; I love it now. Nonetheless, for all its effectiveness, it’s hard to justify choosing a score imbued with such immanent, intentional unpleasantness.
Instead I must select the only film whose soundtrack has made it on my regular music rotation, from a film that shares with Taxi Driver a solitary male protagonist with a propensity for violence and half of its title. I refer, of course, to Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, memorably scored by Cliff Martinez (amongst others). Where the jaggedness of Hermann’s Taxi Driver score is an assault, buffeting and jolting the viewer, Martinez provides a languorous humidity. The synth-driven score is sticky seduction, laced with a sinister undercurrent only surfacing as the film steers towards bloodshed. It’s perfectly suited to the film’s influences, French New Wave cinema and American New Wave music alike
The most memorable moment comes towards the middle of the picture, where Desire’s “Under Your Spell” is employed as a throbbing accompaniment – both lyrically and musically – for the burgeoning bond between our unnamed protagonist (Ryan Gosling) and his neighbour, Irene (Carey Mulligan), whose husband (Oscar Isaac) has returned from jail. The music, a yearning synth-pop masterpiece honed to knife-edge perfection by Martinez, thumps through the Driver’s walls, an uncontrollable pulse of desire.
The choice to score a scene of repressed romantic longing to a song with the chorus lyric “I do nothing but think of you / You keep me under your spell” (from a band called Desire, no less!), is hardly a subtle one. Drive’s soundtrack is far from subtle, but it’s also from sincere – the film might end with the repeated refrain “a real human being, / and a real hero” but it’s clear from every element of the film – from narrative to the delicately ominous score – that this is no hero’s journey. Much like the film itself, the soundtrack plays with the audience’s expectations, building something dark into something shiny. I remember Martinez’s score because it is overt, yes, but also because it finds a way to burrow under your skin, to keep you under its spell.