Drive (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) – Cliff Martinez (2011)

Cliff Martinez

Album artwork for Drive (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

Today’s post is a groundbreaker for Audio Intimacy.  The original score written for the 2011 film Drive, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn and starring Ryan Gosling, has officially become the first soundtrack album to be featured on the site.  This summer, I am in Los Angeles interning with a composer for films and TV shows, so it seems only fitting that I expand the blog to include this particular brand of musical expression.  Now that the floodgates have been opened, be on the lookout for more soundtracks to follow this one! With that said, let’s move on to the main event.  The score for this movie was written by Cliff Martinez, former drummer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and current film composer who’s been tearing up the scene for several years now.  What makes Drive unique is the sole use of electronic music in the soundtrack, capitalizing on the strengths for which Martinez has been gaining widespread influence throughout the film industry.

Film music has certainly come a long way since its formative years in the early 20th century, when cinemas would employ in-house pianists, organists, or even orchestras to play live music overtop the mechanical noise of the projector.  It has evolved into a formidable job that fuses together evocative composition, collaboration with the movie’s production crew, and the highly refined skills of syncing audio cues to picture – choosing the exact frame at which to start and stop the music.  Nowadays, just like in any other professional industry, we have developed technology to assist us in accomplishing such a massive undertaking. Electronic music, being a reflection of human society’s adaptation to the digital revolution, has inevitably started to blend with traditional approaches to film scoring, and it is the work of visionaries like Cliff Martinez that has paved the way towards this new period of musical innovation.

This is certainly not your traditional film score.  If you’re expecting a grandiose, theme-oriented orchestral soundtrack à la John Williams or Howard Shore, then you will unfortunately be disappointed.  That is not to say, however, that Cliff Martinez’s work is any weaker than that of other composers.  Rather, he has defined a new and unique style that plays upon the audience’s heartstrings in a different way.  Instead of bombastically heralding the entrance of various characters, the soundtrack for Drive emphasizes the subtleties of the characters’ moods and thought processes.  The main character (played by Gosling) has very little dialogue in the film, so responsibility falls to the music to cue the audience in as to what is going through his head.  In this sense, I believe that Martinez does a remarkable job of filling in the colors to an otherwise black-and-white outline.

Although it always remains within the electronic realm, this score pulls on several distinct stylistic influences.  There is clear influence from the likes of Brian Eno, the pioneer of early electronic and ambient music.  Such a style seems to be a perfect match for the film, since it never requires significant attention, and does not interfere with other sonic or visual elements of the movie.  Don’t let me paint a false picture of simplicity, though; it may be minimalistic, but it is by no means a plebeian effort.  When the number of elements that require our attention as listeners is diminished, it is the subtle nuances that become so enrapturing.  This is exactly the technique that Martinez has drawn upon, and he pulls it off perfectly.  Not only is this music an excellent pairing with the motion picture, it is also a quintessential record for quiet meditation and calm introspection.

The other major influence that becomes apparent in the Drive soundtrack is the retro ’80s vibe.  Repetitive synth bass loops are the name of the game here, love ’em or hate ’em.  This is evident in tracks like “Kick Your Teeth,” “Hammer,” and “Bride of Deluxe.”  Rather than killing the otherwise serene mood of the usual ambience, however, it augments with a sense of tension and drama that is necessary for any good film.  Rather than thinking of the repetition as a deterrent, ask yourself this: how does one induce a state of trance?  Think of the archetypal swinging pocket watch.  The monotony of a hypnotist’s voice.  Constant, steady rhythms.  Is it not repetition that eases us into a sense of internal peace?  In this way, Martinez actually combines two methods of calming the mind – ambient minimalism and steady, rhythmic loops.  What on the surface may seem like laziness is actually a remarkable way of enhancing the audiovisual experience of the movie.

Included in the soundtrack are five songs not written by Cliff Martinez.  Four of them fall into the same throwback category reminiscent of the ’80s, while the other one (“Oh My Love”) is a very classically influenced operatic piece that invokes a sense of musical irony in the score. Of the first four tracks, “Nightcall” by Kavinsky stands out as the song that is played during the opening credits.  Set at a relatively slow tempo, this track is a perfect blend of everything you love about electronica – the synthesized vocals (perhaps a result of its production, courtesy of Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo of Daft Punk fame), the steady, rolling beat, and the trancey chords underneath Lovefoxxx’s angelic vocals.  It is the perfect piece of music to introduce the film, and it sets the stage for everything to come.

In short, Cliff Martinez does a brilliant job of bringing the film to life in a non-traditional way that conveys just as much emotion as any other score I can think of.  Rather than unleashing a vast array of intricately woven melodies and instruments, he instead chooses to captivate the audience with trance-inducing minimalism.  It gives us a sense of comfort when we want it, and it keeps us on the edge of our seats when the tension is rising.  It is an amazing musical adaptation of the storyline of the movie, and it is a phenomenal sonic experience both with and without the film.  If you haven’t seen Drive, I would highly recommend it to anyone, just as long as you to pick up the soundtrack afterwards!

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