Do you ever wonder how filmmakers work with musicians to compile our favourite movie soundtracks? That’s what I did yesterday when I gave up the thought of making a list with some of the best films that have been released in Cannes and where to stream them right now, in sight of the festival being cancelled this year. It didn’t feel right. We can binge-watch all the films available online, but nothing will replace the experience from inside a theatre, especially a movie premiere, especially at a festival. It sets you up to pay attention, it resets your emotions. And the days following the premiere, there’s something special about them, too, with all the thoughts and talks focused on what you have just witnessed, arming yourself with opinions to discuss, praise or defend a film that may stay with you forever. It’s not just about watching movies, it’s about film culture. And people who care about culture want to keep it alive.
Film music is part of our fascination with cinema and the big screen. So here is how film and music intersect in three of my favourite films that have opened in Cannes over the years.
With uncanny skill, in league with cameraman Newton Thomas Sigel and composer Cliff Martinez, director Nicolas Winding Refn blends tough and tender, violence and beauty. Drive is wild and damn good. Even the scorpion sign on Ryan Gosling’s cult jacket has a musical reference. The director and his lead actor both had their say in choosing the scorpion logo, too, a nod to one of the first music videos ever, Scorpio Rising, made by Kenneth Anger. A tribute to a time of avant garde filmmaking. Drive is indeed a film that, in every aspect of its making, shows respect to craft.
Refn told NPR in 2011 that before he filmed Drive, he hadn’t spent much time in Los Angeles, but he and Gosling developed the film while driving around the city, listening to songs on the car radio, and the songs on the soundtrack “were chosen to mimic and enhance both the isolation and the emotion of sitting behind the wheel of a car, closed off from the world passing by outside”. Key for establishing the sound of the movie was the song “A Real Hero” by College, Refn explained, “because that, just by [coincidence], had a lyric that also described my idea for the movie. To me it was the story about a character, the protagonist, who lived in two worlds. By day he was a human being and by night he was a hero.”
Ryan Gosling is Driver in Drive. Driver drives for hire. He is a part-time mechanic and Hollywood stunt racer who moonlights as a getaway wheel man. Gosling is silent, stoic, mysterious, a loner. He drives through the streets of Los Angeles on the soundtrack of melodic electronic songs and Cliff Martinez’s shimmering score, and music becomes a way “to express his emotions, like almost a way for him to cry,” said Refn, confessing that music is the most important tool a director has to work with because music enhances emotion.
“One thing that was unique for me about this project was having songs exert such a strong influence on the score,” Cliff Martinez, the composer, told Invada Records. “That helped to create a unified, one-size-fits-all, style of soundtrack… the 80s electronic pop style made a lot of sense to me. I knew that Nicolas was in love with that sound and I saw a way to acknowledge it with vintage synth sounds and cover most of the dramatic food groups while referencing that style.”
The Drive soundtrack features original music by Cliff Martinez (Traffic) with songs by Kavinsky & Lovefoxxx (“Nightcall”), The Chromatics (“Tick of the Clock”), Desire (“Under Your Spell”), College featuring Electric Youth (“A Real Hero”), and Riziero Ortolani featuring Katyna Ranieri (“Oh My Love”).
Only Lovers Left Alive, 2013
I remember when I was watching Only Lovers Left Alive and the sequence with Yasmine Hamdan performing “Hal” occurred, towards the end of the movie. I’m not sure I can even describe that feeling in words, but it was like hitting that point when you sensed you were finally completely being drawn into the world of the two characters, dark and timeless and otherworldly and overwhelming. I sometimes listen to that song, but the effect is not even closely the same. For me, that song lives in that film. The two forms of art form a common language. The song was not composed for Jarmusch’s film, and that makes its effect all the more striking. When Tilda Swinton’s character, Eve, suggests that Hamdan should be better known, Tom Hiddleston’s character, Adam, says she shouldn’t, because “she’s too good”. Maybe the song is only meant to come alive in the film, in that story, because I am not sure an appropriate moment exists in real life. Maybe only in Tangier, “a place where, unlike Marrakech, the old world and new world are not separated by a gulf as though looking at each other. It’s all mixed,” as the director described the atmosphere and location for his film for Vice magazine.
There is a musical undercurrent in all of Jim Jarmusch’s films. And all the more so in Only Lovers. Adam and Eve are vampires, Adam is also a musician, which makes him a century-old musician whose music is catching on in the underground nightclubs of a ghostly Detroit, the other location of the film. Music is so much part of Jarmusch’s movies, it is woven into the celluloid. It is, reportedly, what kickstarts his ideas and imagination when he is writing a script.
The music for Only Lovers Left Alive was composed by Jarmusch’s own band SQÜRL and he also brought in his frequent collaborator, Dutch lute player Jozef Van Wissem, to compose some of the film’s incidental music. This compilation of sounds resulted in an entrancing blend between past and present, between minimal orchestration and haunting vocals (the score features guest appearances from Zola Jesus, Yasmine Hamdan and Madeline Follin of Cults), a perfect analogy for Adam and Eve’s vampire characters. Jim Jarmusch’s soundtracks give voice to his drifters and dreamers, and, in turn, the characters come alive through the music and enter our own imagination.
Pulp Fiction, 1994
Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is my favourite Tarantino movie. There is so much I love about it, and the music is part of it, because the film is not only a feast for your eyes, but for your ears, too. Every time a car starts, the music starts blasting from the radio. It was the 1960s. Music was very much part of the culture, and there was a car-based culture, and music was mainly listened to on the radio in the car. Tarantino brilliantly captured that feeling, that mood. We don’t get to listen only to the music from that time, but to radio shows, too, that’s how far the director went to portray the atmosphere from back in the day.
But before Quentin Tarantino gave us Once Upon a Time…, he gave us Pulp Fiction, his Palme d’Or winner. And one of the greatest mixtape soundtracks ever made. When he executive produced the soundtrack album, Tarantino rearranged the sequence of the songs on the track list the same way he played with chronology in the film. “Having Misirlou’ as your opening credit, it’s just so intense,” Tarantino said in 1994 about Dick Dale and His Del-Tones’ song. “It just says you’re watching an epic, you’re watching a big ol’ movie. It just throws down a gauntlet that the movie now has to live up to it.”
The song dates back to 1927 and Dale surf-rocked it up in the 1960s. It’s what Tarantino does so well with all the songs he uses in his films. He compiles preexisting music and makes it sound new in his films. He revives it, he gives it new life, he brings it to or back to the public’s attention, and it’s not just because the songs are good, but because of the way each song is paired with each scene. Sound and vision form a union. From this very reason, Ennio Morricone was hesitant working with him when Tarantino approached the composer to write the music for The Hateful Eight. “Tarantino often appropriated my music to dislocate it in a completely different context from the one it was meant for. Part of my reluctance to work with him derived from the fact that I was somewhat afraid to come up with new music for him, as I feared he might be too conditioned by his own musical habits…,” the composer said in his book.
Tarantino is a director who uses music in a very singular way. More than that, one of the biggest accomplishments of Tarantino’s films is that “so many people, such a wide and diversified audience, watch his films, and it appears that young people especially get in touch with my music primarily through his cinema,” Morricone further concluded. There’s really nothing much to add to that. Except that, in Ennio Morricone’s words again, “music is mysterious, it doesn’t offer many answers. Film music, on the other hand, is even more mysterious at times, both because of its bond with images and because of its way of bonding with the audience.”
More stories: Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood: Everything I hoped It Would Be and More / Ennio Morricone: In His Own Words / Ryan Gosling and His Otherworldly Jacket in Drive