The trailer for the new film Drive promises heavy action, car chases, and a hot romance with a heroic Ryan Gosling. Both the film and its soundtrack, however, are more quietly subversive than its marketing suggests. The film’s Danish director, Nicolas Winding Refn, has created a moody neo noir that defies audience’s expectations. Recalling the dark disco sound of Giorgio Moroder scores of the 1970s and 1980s (Cat People, Midnight Express), the songs and score by former Red Hot Chili Pepper Cliff Martinez are winningly retro, slick, and eerily effective.
Without going cheekily retro or too obvious, the score provides an effective companion to the movie and its songs. With pulsating percussion, keyboards and dissonant strings, Martinez has a flair for creating an understated sonic background that’s never intrusive. The creepiest tracks of the film’s most violent moments, aptly named “Kick Your Teeth” and “Skull Crushing,” are subversively minimal—which makes these scenes in the movie all the more shocking and raw. He also composes some layered, hypnotic music for Gosling and Mulligan’s moments of yearning. Like John Carpenter’s throbbing, electronic soundtracks for Halloween and Escape from New York, the score provides a dark, seductive atmosphere.
The Chromatics subtly hypnotic “Tick of the Clock” has the perfect pulse to add both style and tension to the film’s opening scene. The 15 minute techno slow-burn from the Portland band’s album Night Drive is whittled down to 5 minutes on the soundtrack, looped and timed effectively to match the film’s quietly mounted action.
Frenchpop artist Kavinsky’s electro number “Nightcall” kicks off the main titles. The call and response tune, a brilliant suggestion from the film’s editor Matthew Newman, compliments the story’s romantic storyline: Gosling’s robotic, stoic Driver (unnamed in the picture, like an antihero of the West) is the vocodored male voice, while his love interest played by Carey Mulligan is Lovefoxxx’s (the Brazilian lead singer of CSS) soft, lilting vocal. It’s uncanny how well the lyrics (“I’m giving you a night call to tell you how I feel / I want to drive you through the night, down the hills / I’m gonna tell you something you don’t want to hear / I’m gonna show you where it’s dark, but have no fear”) and the sound of the music work so well with the picture—it’s as if the song was originally written for the film itself.
Desire’s girlpop twee “Under Your Spell,” with its repetitive chorus and beat, figures as a love theme and the background song from a party—designed beautifully in the film to sound as if it’s booming behind a wall and a closed door. The lyrics too are suggestive of what the film attempts to do—the movie is an action film but also a mood piece, a quiet character study. Cannibal Holocaust composer Riz Ortolani (his music is used often in Quentin Tarantino’s work, an obvious influence on the film) contributes the sweeping, elegiac number “Oh My Love.” The aching vocal, by Italian singer Katyna Ranieri, is an operatic moment on the soundtrack. The song that was in my head the most after the movie would be ”A Real Hero,” by College and Electric Youth. It ends up being a fitting end theme: shiny and uplifting fluff that contrasts nicely with the movie’s ambiguity.
Jeffery Berg is a poet who lives in Manhattan and a regular music writer for Frontier Psychiatrist. His reviews include Foster The People, Hercules and Love Affair and Twin Shadow. He edits poetry for Clementine and Mary and writes about film, guilty pleasures, and various obsessions on jdbrecords.