Written by UTG critic Grace Duffy, Scene & Heard takes a look at the music that makes our favorite films so memorable. Whether it’s the 400-piece orchestra Christopher Nolan used for The Dark Knight, or the dozen or so bands that contributed to the soundtrack of Top Gun, there is no denying the impact music has on movies and this column hopes to highlight the best of the best.
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Drive is a highly impressive film in its own right, but its unique and vivid soundtrack is one of the most effectively used scores in recent movie history. It’s made up mostly of original score music composed by Cliff Martinez, along with some artists’ songs that add a certain authenticity to its 80s-centric electronica longing. What’s perhaps a little unusual about the score to Drive is how relatively sparse and unintrusive the music can be during the actual film. There are certain prolonged stretches without any musical backing at all, and yet when the synthesized strains begin to creep back in it’s like they were never missing. It’s a dark and visceral film, with a distinctly surreal and very atmospheric feel. It’s a little bit sleazy, it’s a little bit beautiful, and its music is every bit as decadent and murky as the smog that coats the LA skyline.
The artists’ tracks actually work a little bit better than Martinez’s offerings, despite the obvious quality of the latter. The vocals and heavier sound bring a thumping realism, whereas the others seem to allow for prolonged periods of getting lost in thought. It’s a shame then that they are placed first on the soundtrack, instead of bookending the music as they do in the film. “Nightcall” by Kavinsky has something monstrous and feral about it, despite earmarking the heavily synthesized sound that comes to characterise the score. It opens the film, following the initial car chase to usher in a bewitching, intoxicating world of neon lights and cheap glamour. It is, much like the city it serenades, heavily distorted and all swagger with no substance, providing a dramatic introduction to a complex and fascinating character.
“Under Your Spell” is a little more innocent, softening the sound for the blossoming romance between Gosling’s unnamed driver and Carey Mulligan’s Irene. It’s fairly straightforward synth pop with dreamlike vocals and lots of spiraling, kaleidoscopic threads billowing in the background. It evokes the intensity of this sudden rushing connection, but more vividly, it manages to perfectly capture the intensity and appeal of the Driver. He is mesmerizing, yet mysterious, the strong silent type for a crueler world. The inquisitive and otherworldly sounds that lilt in the background as the two grow closer are gorgeous, creating a sense of fragmented tenderness that gradually reveals itself in her clasping of his hand in the car and his putting the child to bed.
“A Real Hero” is perhaps the most important artist’s song on the soundtrack, as it accompanies the final, ambiguous act and disappearance of the hero into the darkness. Obvious as the lyrics may be in light of what’s happened on screen, the moody, ethereal sound is perfect in capturing the simple truth of his character. He’s human, he’s flawed, he’s fascinating, but he’s still managed to do something important and commendable. I can’t imagine anyone getting up to leave before this track plays out. There’s even a glimpse of poignancy as he disappears to remain as anonymous and alone as ever, leaving something potentially wonderful behind out of horrible necessity. “Oh My Love” has a more overtly moving nature – a suitably understated and elegiac song to accompany the awful moment when he realizes he’s lost Shannon, one of the few he loved and could count upon. This song is actually a touch overblown by comparison with how terse and stoical everything onscreen has been, yet it’s a pivotal glimpse of real harrowing emotion to match the only time the Driver’s mask falls.
Compared to these tracks, Cliff Martinez’s score music isn’t quite as emphatic, but nonetheless acts as a chilling accompaniment to various key scenes. “Rubber Head” has an eerie ending, with barren, haunting strings. Indeed, the music becomes desensitised when the onscreen violence really begins. There’s a grainy rawness to the shards of “After the Chase”, and a lurking menace to “Kick Your Teeth.” “I Drive” is barely there yet invasive, like something constantly skulking at your shoulder, and “Skullcrushing” has a thudding sense of dread to match a moment of visceral violence.
Drive is set in a world of chance and fortune, where disillusionment is just as rampant as the glitter of success. Dreams can flourish in the piercing lights just as they can founder in the unforgiving darkness. Its music provides an unforgettable serenade to a central character both flawed and heroic, yet so elusive as to leave the impression you’ve almost imagined the entire thing. It can be subtle, but much like the film, it’ll leave more of an impact than anything else you’ll see this year.