Monday, October 3, 2011

"It's the only way he can feel": 10 tidbits about the excellent Drive soundtrack

I don't get the white satin jacket thing, Gosling. It's a little too Pinky Tuscadero.
Drive is a film I initially dismissed as Faster: Caucasian Edition (the main characters in both Faster and Drive share the same minimalist name as the Ryan O'Neal character in Walter Hill's The Driver: "Driver"). I also kept thinking, "What's up with that hot-pink '80s font on the Drive posters and soundtrack album cover? Is this a Hill-style action film or a spinoff of Alice with Linda Lavin?" That was all before I discovered Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn's artsy action flick--a European outsider's vision of L.A., much like John Boorman's surreal 1967 classic Point Blank--is one of the most finely crafted pieces of cinema in 2011.

Many critics and bloggers have been crazy about Drive, which Refn adapted from the 2005 James Sallis noir novel of the same name, ever since it earned at Cannes both a 15-minute standing ovation and a Best Director prize for Refn (I wonder what Parker, Taylor Hackford's upcoming adaptation of Donald E. Westlake's The Hunter, the same novel that Boorman made into Point Blank, would have been like under the direction of Refn, whose latest thriller has all the leanness and meanness of a Parker caper).

But to moviegoers who are neither critics nor film geeks who are well-versed in the cinematic and visuals-driven language of Hill, Boorman and Michael Mann, the offbeat and ultraviolent-when-you-least-expect-it Drive--which was influenced by the works of those three directors and many others, yet it doesn't feel derivative and hackneyed--is a love-it-or-hate-it film. It received a C- at CinemaScore, even though it features Albert Brooks in a surprisingly convincing villain role and stars Ryan Gosling in one of his most appealing roles, as an introverted Hollywood stuntman-by-day/getaway driver-by-night who's as contradictory a figure as Steve McQueen in Bullitt or Takeshi Kitano in Fireworks (buried under the laconic, calm and non-threatening-looking exteriors of Gosling, McQueen and Kitano are some really violent dudes) and is as mysterious and somehow beloved by kids as Alan Ladd in Shane.

Sally Sparrow wishes she could be timey-wimeyed out of the party she's attending.
The C- is most likely due to moviegoers who expected Drive to be what was known in the '90s as a "TBS Movie for Guys Who Like Movies" and were unprepared for a film that's a little less conventional than that and is "fearless about being corny," as Elvis Mitchell said about Drive while interviewing Refn on The Treatment. At the Drive matinee screening I attended, a group of teenage Latinas didn't understand the film or why Gosling's Driver barely spoke to his MacArthur Park neighbor/love interest Irene (Carey Mulligan) and felt it was their responsibility to let everyone in the theater know that they didn't understand--loudly. It resulted in a moviegoing experience that was so lousy--it's one of the lousiest I've ever had--I ranted about it on Twitter, but Drive is so intriguing not even the smug attention whores who snickered in the theater during every scene could taint my enjoyment of the film or its soundtrack.

Speaking of the Drive soundtrack, which consists of '80s-sounding but surprisingly recent Euro-synth tunes that Refn once described as "like Joy Division with a beat" and an ambient original score by Narc composer Cliff Martinez, both the songs and score are pitch-perfect for the film's decadent '80s Thief/To Live and Die in L.A. vibe and are totally addictive outside the context of the film. A few of the selections from the Drive soundtrack can be heard on A Fistful of Soundtracks, but if you're too impatient to wait to catch one of the Drive tracks on AFOS, the Lakeshore Records release, which is selling like gangbusters on iTunes, is worth downloading or picking up.

Here are 10 facts about the music of Drive:

1. In the film, Gosling's wheelman character likes to turn on the radio while waiting for his criminal accomplices to finish their heists. That character detail stemmed from the first time Gosling truly bonded with Refn. Gosling, who wanted to make a superhero movie and thought of Drive as his superhero project, hand-picked Refn to direct the film because he was a fan of the director's previous works, but as Gosling has noted in several interviews, he initially had a difficult time communicating with a standoffish, under-the-weather and high-on-flu-medicine Refn about how they should approach the project until...

"I turn on the radio to quiet the silence and REO Speedwagon's 'Can't Fight This Feeling' comes on," said Gosling, recalling to New York Times writer Dennis Lim his first car ride with Refn (whom Gosling would frequently chauffeur around SoCal because Refn doesn't drive and stopped working on getting his driver's license after failing his driving test eight times). "And I see [Refn] start to cry and he looks at me with tears in his eyes and he starts singing at the top of his lungs and hitting his knees, and he says, 'I know what this movie is, it's a movie about a guy who drives around listening to pop music because it's the only way he can feel.'"

The sounds of a 1985 high school prom bring out the waterworks in Refn? Wow. Remind me not to play Foreigner's "I Want to Know What Love Is" around Refn or else someone's snot will start flowing.

2. On The Treatment, Refn told Mitchell, who likened Drive to a musical, that whenever he starts work on each of his films, he chooses a specific band or artist to constantly listen to as inspiration. During Pusher II: With Blood on My Hands, Refn put on Iron Maiden and then went with Neil Diamond for Pusher III: I'm the Angel of Death and Pet Shop Boys for his 2008 cult favorite Bronson. "Music heightens emotions," said Refn to Mitchell. "It gives you images in your head." For Drive, Refn listened to Kraftwerk, hence the Euro-synthy songs and score.

3. Before Refn picked Martinez to score Drive, he approached Portland indie synth-pop producer and Italians Do It Better label co-founder Johnny Jewel about writing the score. In Bronson, Refn prominently featured "Digital Versicolor," a track by Jewel's band Glass Candy (one of a bunch of bands that include Jewel as a member). Jewel jumped at the opportunity to score Drive and completed three hours' worth of score music, but due to deadline issues and some miscommunication, Jewel's score ended up being unused. Jewel wasn't bitter over his Drive score cues getting rejected and is planning to release the unused material on his upcoming imaginary soundtrack project Symmetry.

Christina Hendricks' tiny role in Drive was originally written for a porn star, but Nicolas Winding Refn couldn't find any porn stars who could act. No surprise there, although Sasha Grey wasn't too awful in The Girlfriend Experience. But on Entourage, Sasha Grey got outacted by her huge bush.
4. To get inspiration while working on the score cues, Jewel and his Chromatics bandmate Adam Miller drew pictures of scenes from Drive. Jewel also got his musical ideas from posters he made of excerpted text from the novel version of Drive and phrases from the movie. He described his creative process to Box Office magazine, and the artwork that resulted from this process (like the above illustration of Drive femme fatale Christina Hendricks) can be glimpsed on the blog for Desire, one of two of Jewel's bands that get airplay in Drive:
One of the first things I did was I took the book and I highlighted all of the phrases, things like "last day," "sanctuary," all of these different phrases from the movie that stimulated my brain, and I'd print those words really big and put them on the wall. Or while I'm writing--this was sort of like a mantra--we were drawing pictures while watching the movie every day. Because everything I do is like going into this camp mode where we would cut ourselves off. I was watching the movie while taking a bath, I was watching the movie while eating, like every day. Because there was only so much time and I wanted to know the movie inside and out, and I can't be watching the movie while I'm actually writing. While I was actually trying to figure out melodies and things like that, I had to watch the movie as much as possible. We drew almost like every scene--there's like 150 of them--so we drew so much, and then I forgot about them and then stumbled across them a couple of weeks ago.
5. Jewel's 2007 instrumental "Tick of the Clock," performed by The Chromatics, is used during the magnificently directed sequence that opens the film and precedes the hot-pink Mistral font credits: Driver's tense and wordless cat-and-mouse game with the police through the avenues and alleyways of L.A. "Tick of the Clock" is 15 minutes long, so Jewel and Chromatics bandmate Nat Walker cut it down heavily for the film.

6. The other Jewel-produced track in Drive is "Under Your Spell," Desire's 2009 tune about romantic longing. It starts out as source music at the homecoming party that Irene throws for her recently freed ex-con husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) and morphs into non-diegetic music as Driver broods over the fact that Standard's return to Irene and their son Benicio (Kaden Leos) has now turned Driver into a third wheel, no pun intended.

7. French electro-house musician Kavinsky's 2010 track "Nightcall," Drive's hypnotic opening title theme, was recommended to Refn by Drive editor Mat Newman. The song previously appeared in The Lincoln Lawyer. (Martinez, Drive music supervisors Eric Craig and Brian McNelis and Drive costume designer Erin Benach, who built Driver's superhero-style white satin jacket with the Kenneth Anger-inspired scorpion logo on the back, all also worked on The Lincoln Lawyer.)

Friendly Neighborhood Driver-Man
"Nightcall," which pairs up Kavinsky, a.k.a. Vincent Belorgey, with Lovefoxxx, a.k.a. Luísa Hanae Matsushita, lead singer of the Brazilian band Cansei de Ser Sexy, was co-written and co-produced by Daft Punk's Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo. Kavinsky, who's toured with Daft Punk and looks like he takes his fashion cues from Teen Wolf, has cited among his influences Giorgio Moroder, Ennio Morricone and '80s R&B bands that the French refer to in their language as "moccasin funk": Midnight Star, The Whispers and Shalamar.

8. Before he wrote scores for Steven Soderbergh films like The Limey and Contagion and provided an effective and low-key score for Drive, Martinez was a drummer for Red Hot Chili Peppers and The Dickies. (One of Martinez's earliest scoring credits was a second-season episode of the classic '80s show Pee-wee's Playhouse, which Danny Elfman and Mark Mothersbaugh--two other rock musicians-turned-film and TV composers--also wrote music for early on in their film and TV scoring careers.)

The L.A. River: home to countless lame '80s MTV videos that would rip off The Road Warrior.
9. "A Real Hero" is the song that plays during Drive's L.A. River sequence. Before Standard re-enters the lives of Irene (whom Martinez's propulsive end title theme refers to as "Bride of Deluxe," a reference to "Where's the deluxe version?," a joke Irene made about Standard's first name when she first met him) and Benicio, Driver takes his neighbor and her son for a relaxing afternoon drive through the L.A. River, a site Driver is perhaps familiar with from his stunt driving shoots. The L.A. River was made famous by the racing sequence in Grease and car chases in Repo Man, Terminator 2: Judgment Day and countless other films, shows and music videos.

The most fairy tale-like of Drive's existing songs (Refn envisioned Drive as a fairy tale with Gosling as the knight and Mulligan as the maiden he sets out to rescue), "A Real Hero" is a 2009 collabo between French producer and remixer David Grellier, a.k.a. College, and the Toronto synth-pop duo Electric Youth (named after the Debbie Gibson album of the same name). The tune is reprised at the end of Drive. In a tweet about "A Real Hero," Brad O'Farrell, "starter of the Keyboard Cat meme," said, "Man I like how the 'theme song' of Drive only plays twice, and both times he really earns it."

I'd like to see a band decide to name itself after the recent Debbie Gibson/Tiffany B-movie Mega Python vs. Gatoroid because that would be an awesome band name.
The vocalist during "A Real Hero" is Electric Youth member Bronwyn Griffin, whose voice has been described by as "one of the most beautiful in the world of blog electro, it fits so perfectly with [her musical partner Austin Garrick's] happy, bubbly sounds." Grellier, Griffin and Garrick are part of the Valerie Collective. According to the Guardian, the acts that make up this international collective all "blog, create lush, catchy synthpop and generally raise the act of homage to epic, fanatical proportions."

Here's another College/Electric Youth song. "She Never Came Back" wouldn't feel out of place in Drive:

10. Heard during the death of a key character, legendary Italian film composer Riz Ortolani's sorrowful "Oh My Love," which features vocals by Katyna Ranieri, is a song from a film that was as notorious for its extreme violence as Drive currently is, Farewell, Uncle Tom. "Either one of the most racist films ever made or a potent condemnation of racism, this 1971 feature from the directors of Mondo Cane is nothing if not brutal," wrote Philadelphia City Paper film critic Sam Adams in 2003, "with gruesome pseudo-documentary footage of slaves being beaten, raped, force-fed with metal funnels and about every other horror you could imagine (and some you hopefully can't)."

When the Italian-made docudrama about the history of American slavery was first shown in America in 1972, Roger Ebert was far less kind to the film than Adams was and found it to be too exploitative.

"Unfortunately, [Gualtiero] Jacopetti and [Franco] Prosperi have been able to find people willing to undergo the humiliation inflicted on them... most of the blacks in the film are apparently Africans forced by poverty and need to do these things for a few days' pitiful wages," wrote Ebert. "Make no mistake. This movie itself humiliates its actors in the way the slaves were humiliated 200 years ago... The fact that this film could find a booking in a legitimate motion-picture theater is depressing."

You might be repulsed by Jacopetti and Prosperi's Mondo movies, either because of their staged footage or the disturbing nature of much of that footage, or you might not find them repulsive, but there's no denying that Ortolani's music for them sounds gorgeous. Ortolani's lush 1962 Mondo Cane theme "Ti guarderò nel cuore," a.k.a. "More," became a frequently covered international hit.

The somber Farewell, Uncle Tom theme is an equally lush composition. It's also the only tune on the Drive soundtrack that's out of place. I skip it whenever I play the entire album because it disrupts the propulsive '80s groove established by "Nightcall," "Under Your Spell" and "A Real Hero" and maintained by Martinez's cues. "Oh My Love" is the speed bump in the otherwise smooth ride that is the Drive soundtrack.

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