Film scores are a bit of a difficult thing to judge. Outside of a few hugely popular film scores, film scores are typically made to sit in the background, subtly but powerfully lifting and amplifying the emotions of the audience. The thing is, a lot of people don’t really notice film scores, sometimes by design. Lately, though, composers have begun to expand their range, offering a more bold, exciting vision of what scores can do for a film.
Of this new crop of composers, Cliff Martinez has emerged as one of the most prominent and exciting composers operating today. He’s the go-to composer for Steven Soderbergh and Nicholas Winding Refn, bringing diverse sounds, branching out from typical orchestral styles to explore a darker and more foreboding sound than most scores.
Martinez’s most famous score is for Nicholas Winding Refn’s brilliant neo-noir Drive. For a film that is mostly about long takes of actors not speaking along with beautiful footage of car chases and the splendor of Los Angeles, Martinez’s score has to do a lot of heavy lifting to create the simmering tension and neon wash that pervades the film.
Martinez uses droning synths and thunderous drums to really keep a consistent mood, and when aided by iconic songs such as Kavinsky’s Nightcall and College’s Real Hero, Martinez provides the perfect backdrop to a masterpiece of a film.
With Solaris, the soundtrack, much like the film itself, is ahead of its time. Martinez’s score marked the seventh collaboration between himself and Steven Soderbergh, and it’s as if the film is designed for the kind of score Martinez provides.
A reimagining of a 1972 Russian classic and originally a book, Soderbergh’s Solaris focuses on deep themes of existential identity crises and a number of other heady topics. Yet, it’s a calmer, more thoughtful film than the others on the list, so it makes sense that Martinez’s score would be more subdued as well. Out of all the scores on the list, Solaris is probably the most traditional, but Martinez does a great job at bringing an electronic pulse to the strings and woodwinds that form the backbone of the score.
In a lot of ways, Only God Forgives is what would have happened if Nicholas Winding Refn hadn’t restrained himself at all during Drive. Only God Forgives is more dark, more violent, and more brutally minimal than Drive, a film that was itself pretty dark, violent and brutally minimal compared to most other neo-noir films. As a result, the film was incredibly divisive, even for fans of Refn. Martinez’s score, though, is far easier to like.
Martinez takes a lot of the overall themes he used in Drive but infuses them with the use of native instruments of Thailand, where the film is based. The addition of instruments that aren’t heard much in Western films is enough to cause pause, especially when paired with the trance-like atmosphere Martinez employs. It’s also more chaotic and discordant than Drive’s score, reflecting a film that itself is chaotic and discordant. Martinez also amps up nearly every element that made the Drive score so good, making a strong argument that the soundtrack for Only God Forgives may be better than the one for Drive.
The Knick marks Martinez and Soderbergh’s latest collaboration, and it marks Martinez’s first foray into scoring a television series. Upon first glance at the subject matter of The Knick, the struggles of the medical industry in 1900, seems like a poor fit for Martinez’s more electronic sensibilities. When you actually listen to the score on its own, it’s unclear how any of it would work in a show set so far in the past. But, against all odds, the score work incredibly well.
According to a recent interview of Soderbergh and Martinez, choosing a score that wasn’t based on the music of 1900 was absolutely needed, since music of the era was, well, really terrible. With the music of the era, there’s no way The Knick could effectively portray the world seen through the eyes of a cocaine-addicted doctor, played by Clive Owen, operating in New York City’s Knickerbocker hospital. This dark world is amplified by the tense and chaotic score Martinez provides. The music is mostly used to show the bleak world that the New York City of 1900 presented to anyone living in it. Obviously the show isn’t dominated by Martinez’s work in the same way his scores dominate the films they are in since the score has to be drawn out over ten episodes, but Martinez provides some excellent background for the show and adds atmosphere that the bleak, harsh visuals can’t do on their own.
Written by Sean May. Published on October 14th, 2014.
Editorial note: We contacted UK-based record label Invada, who have re-released much of Martinez work on vinyl. Unfortunately, they were hesitant to answer questions we had regarding their catalogue and showed concern that “[they were] told your site ‘MAY’ have links to other sites that have breached copyright” and “Geoff who i run the label with is the founding member of Portishead and he has worked very hard over the years to ‘do the right thing’.”. While initially willing to give us a chance and after explaining Has it Leaked’s premise and policy regarding illegal downloads, the stance on “doing the right thing” meant we didn’t get to do our interview.
While we would have wanted to feature the labels impressive work more thoroughly, and showcase the passion for music readers of Has it Leaked have, we leave you with a few must have releases such as the gorgeous pink vinyl Drive Soundtrack as well as the scores for Solaris and Only God Forgives. We hope someday to reconcile with the label and help promote their incredible discography through our two million visitors per month platform.