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Revising the beauty of the ‘Drive’ soundtrack

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There are movie soundtracks, and then there are remarkable pieces of art in their own right. The convergence of the visual and aural can make or break a feature. When every aspect is done correctly, and the story, acting, directing, cinematography and music are all carried out with artistic verve, it can create one of the most potent experiences a human can have. Whilst there have been many instances of the music making a film, the soundtrack of Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2011 hit, Drive, is one of the stand-out examples. 

Notably, the movie stars Ryan Gosling as the unnamed Driver, a stuntman moonlighting as a getaway driver whose life becomes mixed-up with the inherent brutality of the criminal underworld. This spiral has life-changing impacts on all those involved with him, including his single mother neighbour and her young son, who he falls for. Co-starring Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Oscar Isaac, Ron Perlman, Christina Hendricks and Albert Brooks, it is one of the highlights of its era. 

It’s a marvellous sensory treat, with Michael Mann-esque colours heightening emotion, Gosling’s character something of a contemporary answer to Clint Eastwood’s ‘Man with No Name’ and moments of ethereal hypnosis counterbalanced by shocking bursts of total violence. Produced at a time when culture, from fashion to music, was still very much obsessed with the 1980s, there is an unbelievably nostalgic current coursing through Drive. The aesthetics that conjure this are augmented by the synth-heavy, retro-sounding soundtrack, perfect for bringing the visual aspects to life, with sound-and-vision dovetailing and washing over the viewer.

The Drive soundtrack dictates most of the film’s mood, from the dreamlike junctures to the ones that pull you back into the gritty world of the driver with graphic swings of death’s axe. Whilst it would be interesting to watch the movie sans the music, undoubtedly, it would not pierce so profoundly. The adroit mesh of sonics on offer add a crisp resonance. As we watch intently as the story unfolds, the music guides us through the complex emotions on display, making it a transcendental experience. 

Drive (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack) resulted from a few minds coming together. Initially, Johnny Jewel of synth-pop heroes Desire and Chromatics was enlisted to compose the score before the studio stepped in at the last minute to hire veteran composer and former Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Cliff Martinez to write the music, strangely, in the vein of Jewel’s work. A blend of electronic, ambient, retro-sounding pop and the odd twist of actual vintage music – in the form of Riz Ortoalani’s ‘Oh My Love’, featuring Katyna Ranieri – this collection of sounds ticks every box needed for such a dynamic visual experience. 

Refn first chose Jewel to score Drive, as he wanted electronic music, but to have it be abstract on occasion for the viewer to feel things from the Driver’s perspective. Trawling through Jewel’s catalogue, he picked out Desire’s ‘Under Your Spell’ and Chromatics’ ‘Tick of the Clock’, as he thought of Drive as a fairy tale. 

At the time, the director told The Guardian that he saw the Driver as a man of reverence. “He’s the man we all aspire to be,” Refn says. “But he wasn’t meant to live in the real world. He’s too noble, too innocent.” This is why College Youth’s immortal song ‘A Real Hero’ was used as the motif in the movie, with the line “a real human being, and a real hero” appearing when the Driver displays these characteristics. 

Jewel was worried at first that ‘Under Your Spell’ might have been too obvious for what Refn wanted to convey. However, as he told Box Office in 2011, he quickly realised that it is deployed in the movie “in the exact same way that I was feeling it when I wrote it. He definitely got the nuance of the song, and understood what it was supposed to mean, and he wanted to give that emotion to the viewer, that same feeling.”

Regarding the music in basic elemental terms, Jewel told Refn that certain scenes should not have bass, as it is an earth tone and is usually deployed for emotional or scary scenes as opposed to pastoral equanimity. He also believed that the music should be in the upper register and soothing for the “dreamlike” sequences. Jewel explained he would highlight phrases from the novel that inspired the film and then print them in large fonts and hang them on his walls while he was crafting the score. He also drew numerous pictures during viewings of the film.

Asked about how much he wanted to include his Chromatics, Desire and Glass Candy bandmates and what suggestions he made to Refn, Jewel told Box Office: “I didn’t pitch anything. Those tracks were already selected before we even spoke. I brought Matt Walker from Chromatics and Desire out, and like I said we were collaborating for a film project anyway. But really I was doing 99 percent of the writing. Mostly what the other people in the bands do is they bring in vocals or lyrics.”

He continued: “And I wasn’t really feeling a lyrical view on the movie, because most of the music in the movie is instrumental, which is my department, so it wasn’t like, ‘Oh man, it would sound great if [Glass Candy vocalist] Ida No sang this’ or whatever, because I was really leaning towards instrumental, almost monotonal, abstract music with really intense jabs of percussion—as close as you can get to making a drum machine sound like a car, like super dirty, pulp-sounding like the movie and the book. So there wasn’t really a desire for like, ‘Oh man, what if Adam from the Chromatics put down some guitars or something like that?’ Everything was leaned towards more abstract-sounding things, and that’s what I do.”

After the studio hired Cliff Martinez, Refn gave him a sampling of the songs he liked and asked Martinez to emulate their sound. Following this, most of the ethereal moments found on the soundtrack were composed by Martinez. Refn was particularly captivated by his ambient music on Martinez’s score for Steven Soderbergh’s 1989 effort, Sex, Lies and Videotape. Due to this, the score features songs with vintage keyboards and descriptive titles that match the portion of the movie. Elsewhere, editor Mat Newman suggested that Drive’s opening credits song be ‘Nightcall’ by the French electronic producer Kavinsky.

“That’s Hollywood, all the cliches are there, and they’re even worse than you already think,” Jewel told The Guardian of the choice to hire Martinez. “I know it’s not a nice thing to say, but my score was superior: it was the director’s choice, Ryan’s choice … but in movie production, there’s a money side and a creative side, and they don’t always meet in the middle.” Thusly, he shaped the unused Drive score into a project called Symmetry. 

Listen to the beauty of the Drive soundtrack below. 

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