“A real human being, And a real hero
Back against the wall of ours
With the strength of a willing to cause
A pursuit some called outstanding
Or emotionally complex
Against a grain
Left to stop at claims
Of all the thoughts your actions entertaining
And you, have proved, to be
A real human being, And a real hero
A planet on a cold, cold morn’
One-hundred-fifty-five people or more
All safe and all rescued
From the slowly sinking ship
What are warmer than
His head so cool
And that if I knew what to do
And you, have proved, to be
A real human being, And a real hero”
Creating a critical and popular groundswell of massive acclaim, Nicolas Winding Refn's dazzling urban thriller-romance, Drive, has received an awesome review from Cas already and, to complement his stellar work on a film that we both agree could well be the best of the year, I'm now going to take a look at one incredibly vital ingredient that helped it to become such an instant cult classic – the eclectic, retro-charged synth-based soundtrack that winds through the story and hugs its characters with such intuition and intimacy that dialogue does, indeed, become largely superfluous, and mood becomes everything.
The opening track, Nightcall, introduces us to Ryan Gosling's iconic modern-day Man With No Name as he drives around the incandescent neon-nocturn of a lonely and stylishly subdued LA. Stunt-driver for the movies by day and fast-getaway specialist by night, our “hero” is going to find himself on the wrong side of a merciless mobster (Albert Brooks) at just the same time as he has finally found true love with Irene (Carey Mulligan), the perky little pixie who lives in the apartment next door. The confrontation with his dark side will break his measured world apart … but it will never shake his ice-cool serenity nor his latent sense of nobility – and a real hero will be born.
French electro-artist Kravinsky, who has toured with Daft Punk (riding so high after their own potent electronic score for Tron Legacy became so equally adored), here teams-up with Lovefoxxx from Brazilian dance outfit CSS to effect the pure “driving” abstraction and alienated melancholia of what is happening inside the head of Ryan Gosling's unnamed Driver as he tools smoothly around the City of Angels after a heist for which he has supplied the uber-smooth and split-second timed getaway. Distorted, cave-sampled vocals tell us how he feels – aloof, alone, searching. Ineffably cool. The sultry female chorus from Lovefoxxx dips in with chic arrogance, almost mocking his clinical dislocation at the sights and sounds around him and his sheer professionalism at getting the job done. Neon-pink titles herald Refn's kaleidoscopic movie as distinctively as the leather driving gloves and silk, scorpion-embroidered jacket of Gosling's Driver, the tune fitting the attitude of the character and the film just as snugly. “I want to tell you something … you don't want to hear,” Kravinsky warns, foreshadowing Driver's unavoidable revelations to Irene, omens growled with lyrical bleakness.
There is even a hint of Goblin's sizzling, gleaming main theme for Dario Argento's Tenebrae about this brazen, surly opener. It has the hot, slowed-down, rubberised feel of a Euro club frozen in time, a sleazy, unashamedly trashy vogue that slides itself around you before you've even realised you've been drawn along for the ride. In the film this is like an immediate anthem. It sets the tone perfectly and with mesmerising grace, and leaves you in the thrall of what is to come. The retro-adoration is thick and redolent and this will permeate the entire soundtrack, but will explode like a glittering supernova in the exultant flurry of songs that follow.
The soundtrack album gathers together the “Various Artists” compilation as the frontrunning scouts as opposed to interspersing them amongst the score elements, but this works supremely well in the concept of how we are swept, musically, into the world of Gosling's star-spun Driver. We get the lilting, brooding pop-synthetics at the start, and then we free-fall into the dark abyss of this doomed romance and the ferocious obstacles that stand in its way.
Desire are Italio-West Coast sound canvassers specialising in Glacial Disco. Johnny Jewel is their producer, and he is also part of The Chromatics, who appear with spectacular results in Track 5. Initially, he wasn't quite sure what Refn was after when the director came cruising for tunes, but when he saw his material playing over the film, the almost existential picture was complete … and he, too, fell “under the spell” of this weird invocation of thrills and kills. He would serve as producer for much of the music that comprises the album, but his uniquely charismatic style would be most provocative in the next two nerve-tingling modern classics.
Track 2's Under your Spell, taken from Desire's album II, embraces the soft synth rhapsodising of The Human League and OMD and the almost accusatory serenading of Blondie, which is one helluva combination. This is sensationally lush and somewhat tongue-in-cheek with fuzzy, sugar-coated 80's synths furring up the slow, semi-melancholy dream-beat. The vocals from Meghan Louise slip a syrupy caress around you as vintage electronica pulsates in a living cocoon of warm longing. Irene's husband (Oscar Isaac) has been released from prison and whilst he enjoys a welcome home party, she stands in the kitchen, happy but isolated, her heart and her mind drifting towards someone not too far away. Someone new. And, working on some engine-parts in the apartment next door, Driver goes through the exact same emotions of love and wishful thinking. “I don't eat, I don't sleep … I do nothing but think of you,” laments Meghan Louise with a voice that could pick the lock of the most heavily guarded heart, perfectly illustrating how the two main characters feel for one another. “You keep me under your spell. You keep me under your spell” becomes the hypnotic plea that pounds like a satin fist into your mind, twisting your emotions through a cat's cradle of burning intensity. Whilst some people will hear the easybeat schmaltz and just think ahhhh, that's nice, there is a beautiful, time-dislocating quality to this gently swaying ballad that will instantly transport others back to a time in their lives when everything was possible, but it was still infinitely cooler and more appropriate to mope and brood in the tingling cloak of a New Romantic fugue. Desire nails this long-lost emotional anxiety to the glistening wall of retro electronica. A rising synth sizzle that sears across generations then gives way to a modified beat that evokes the majesty of A Flock of Seagulls and Soft Cell. I'm now 42, long-time married and with a couple of kids, and it makes me recall the desperate disease of locking myself in my bedroom, playing a sad song over and over again, and pining for someone with distinctly un-heroic angst more magnificently and eloquently than any time-machine ever could. Quite honestly, this is incredible.
Refn knew the track that Johnny Jewel had written and worked on for Desire, and understood implicitly how to best to integrate it into the film. It will strike a mighty chord with anyone who has ever loved when they see how he utilises the song. This and the next track are, very possibly, two of the most perfect examples of the melding of song and image that I have encountered. And that's no small statement, that.
So, if you think that nothing can top Under Your Spell for glowing, wistful romanticism, you'd best think again. Drive then goes devoutly elemental in its quest to redesign the musical signature of your heartbeat with the resonating and eternal ode, A Real Hero, from College (and featuring Electric Youth) from Valerie Records. Thus, Track 3 hits the bittersweet agonies of transcendental sacrifice, embarking on the theme for the relationship between Gosling's Driver and Mulligan's girl-next-door in two key sequences in the film, but presented here in its earnest and heartbreaking entirety. The female vocals begin with an ethereal harmony, soothing, tender and so damn achingly unattainable, whilst the haunting chorus takes on an almost Enya-crossed-with-Dolores O' riorden quality of quite spellbinding repetition and soul possession. The twinkling beat undulates with an undeniable, closed-eye surge of the purest musical crack. The hairs on the back of the neck rise and you find that you just don't want the song to ever close. This is the music of lingering looks and unspoken vows, and the shifting, malleable spider's web of a cloying, choking love that will be put through the wringer. That bouncy, twanging synth-line ripples throughout like a moody, eternal bass guitar underpinning the joyous, euphoric chimes and electronic inflections that colour the tone of a love worth fighting … and, perhaps, dying for. Believe me, this will worm its way into your subconsciousness so deeply it will take an exorcist to remove it. But, hey, that's okay because you won't ever want it removed.
I've seen the film twice now, but watching it even for the first time, it was the marriage of these two tracks to the fawning LA visuals, and experiencing the quietly devastating love blossom between Driver and Irene that utterly broke me apart. It deliberately evokes the euphoria of found love and the sweet, sweet poison that inevitably drips into you right alongside it. A Real Hero even finds an oasis of rapturous natural splendour at the end of one of LA's storm drains as Driver takes Irene and her son on an impromptu trip to his own hidden nirvana of tranquility. Refn, Gosling, Mulligan and College give us a taste of genuine happiness in the film's first rendition of the track. Magically, tragically, they make those timeless lyrics quoted above take on an altogether more mythical dimension as the film then makes its ghostly and magnificent return to the track during the heart-stopping finale. I saw people with tears glistening on their faces as they left the cinema … but they were smiling too. It got them. Man, it got them.
I know because it got me, as well. And I don't think I'll recover.
A radical departure from the rest of the score comes with Track 4's sublime rendition of Oh My Love, sung with swirling, 60's operatic intensity by Katyna Ranieri and backed in grandly symphonic style by her husband, the great Italian score composer Riz Ortolani. Ortolani hails from the same epic tradition as Ennio Morricone, and his music has bolstered everything from historical dramas to war films, and from Spaghetti Westerns to atmospheric Euro-horrors like Castle of Blood. His work has even featured in Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Vol. II, so there could be something of a pop-savvy Tarantino nod from Refn with this particular choice. Taken from the 1971 film Addio Zio Tom (Goodbye Uncle Tom), this gorgeous song plays over one of Drive's most surreal scenes, that Driver's masked intent for payback. Its apparent incongruity here only adds to its resonance and impact, and you can bet that many people who would normally have laughed at such a wailing, broad, old diva-esque ballad become engulfed in its highly deliberate, and decidely over-the-top placement here. Incidentally, the stereo effect here is stunning, the orchestra sweeping elegantly from side to side as Ranieri really goes for it.
Things then get all organic and smoochy with Tick of the Clock from Portland band The Chromatics. A thick, bubble-wrapped rhythm drives with erotic insistence, folding in hints of Moby with a fabulously catchy techno/reggae-cum-Euro beat, the pace of which is irresistible and downright sensual. This is musical lovemaking and it teases the loins with an infectious verve that will have your pelvis slowly moving in tandem with its sexy come-on There's a cue on Susan Justin's score for the tacky SF exploitation flick from Roger Corman, Forbidden World (see BD review) which has a very similar effect. As with that much older track, the synths become entities writhing together, finding the right groove and rolling to an almost physical metronomic power. A minute-and-a-half in and the pace drops, the rhythm abates and we are all lulled by an apprehensive tonal plateau. A glacial texture forms, sliding higher and louder … and then it, too, recedes. And then the beat returns, thrumming somewhere just behind your soul for a few seconds until it pushes through with renewed, pulsating vigour, an enhanced glistening chime-like cadence that could easily be the steady clinking of a neck-chain rocking in rhythmic motion above a receiving lover, adding a precious ice-cut blip to the orgasmic voyage.
We have now made a musical transition.
After these five electrifying tracks, the film's score “proper” then establishes itself. Composed by former Red Hot Chilli Peppers drummer Cliff Martinez (Solaris, Traffic, Contagion), we enter the land of evolved trance-ambience and gleaming, iridescent electronic textures. We are lost without a map, but Martinez's Tangerine Dream-influenced tapestry guides us through the emotions that we are meant to be feeling. Abstract, dislocated and meandering through a darkly emotional soundscape with effortless cool, this is a remarkable journey that, to some, may just be a drone that is, by turns, soothing and sinister but, to others, a rich and tonally varied tableau that provides a psychological imprint of the dilemma that Driver faces … and his never-forgotten glimmer of optimism. But what Martinez has really captured is the musical expression of cruising endlessly through a neon-drenched city and, divorced from the visuals, the effect is no less hypnotic. There is the slow, all-night-at-the-wheel meditation of Rubber Head, the icy and industrial-tinged paranoia of See You In Four, the love-at-first-sight soul opening of I Drive, and the Zimmer-tainted adrenaline of Kick Your Teeth.
Despite their rather apt cue-titles, these fourteen tracks don't follow the action in the conventional sense because neither Refn nor Martinez want the score to act that way. Martinez opens up portals into the subconsciousness and unravels the escalating fears and desires that reside within Driver's pushed-to-the-limits brain from our introduction to his latex-mask day-job, his garage-work and his more specialised moonlighting to his first contact with Irene and her young son, and the spiralling out-of-control circumstances that threaten to derail their relationship. This is a massive ever-coalescing fusion of glistening layers, whirring suspense and cerebral short-circuiting. Listen to the mighty After The Chase to find a vast and roiling impressionistic cyclone of electrically super-charged emotions. And the deceptively named Hammer for a superb melting-pot of Tangerine Dream and Vangelis, the first half of the track so captivating that you'll find yourself checking to make sure that you haven't begun to float away. The second half dropping the curtain of celestial invigoration to tighten the grip and heighten the sense of dread. Melancholic urges penetrate most of these tracks, but Martinez then gives way to a glorious, personalised reinterpretation of Where's The Deluxe Version? for the final cue, the celebratory Bride Of Deluxe, which just makes you want to get behind the wheel and go cruising through empty still-born streets under a neon cosmos. The kevlar beat kicks in, electro-chimes bobble and blurt … and the highway slips by, a pulsing umbilical cord connecting you to the ultra-stylised adventure of Driver.
Once the songs have ended - though they never quite drift too far away – the score becomes a sweeping, ergonomic mass. For a moment it cascades like liquid diamond, for another it pummels like a storm of moulded, star-filled static. Waves of reserved beauty attempt to escape the densely synthetic vortex. But each attempt, no matter how obfuscating and tonally seductive is ultimately sucked back into the echoing bell-chamber of deeper, darker, more demented intent. This is Alice in Wonderland – innocence surrounded and bullied by an ever-hungry, ever-circling whirlpool of doomed and broken dreams. It shouldn't be beautiful, but it is. And the more you listen to it, the more in-tune you become to it, almost as though this is a Cronenbergian conceit – an Audiodrome, if you will. Once exposed, you're hooked.
I listen to film scores all the time. I'm obsessed with them. But to find a new soundtrack that makes such an immediate and soul-charging impact as this, I have to admit, is very rare. I don't normally fall in love with song-based soundtracks or even such luxuriously dense and soothing ambient sound textures and designs, but with Drive, it is impossible to deny the fact that I have become truly and eternally smitten.
There may not be any clean getaways, but don't let this one give you the slip.
The film of the year gets a soundtrack to fall in love to … and to die for. Like the film it supports, the album gets top marks.
Awesomely addictive, powerfully evocative and utterly spellbinding, the soundtrack to Drive soars with retro-bliss and a staggeringly mythical quality. Blending the verve of Moroder with the sugary euphoria of 80's synth at its most intoxicating, this is the music of the highway and of the heart, and seems determined to set both on a collision course. Cliff Martinez chews up the tension, violence and excitement of Gosling's on-the-edge Driver, fuelling his emotions and mapping for him a new neural network of sensation. Although ambient and hypnotic, there is both beauty and darkness in his synapse-tapping electro-symphony. Once you enter this world you are sure to become entwined with it. Should you ever want to leave, I doubt you will be quite the same again.
But as incredible and as affecting as Martinez's score is, the really good stuff comes courtesy of those phenomenal songs from Desire and College. I cannot believe just how captivating they have become. It feels as though I have heard nothing else for days … and yet each time I listen to them, they feel just as fresh, just as beautiful.#
Drive, the album, is a sublime relocation of the heart and soul to a time and place that some of us actually had the pleasure of experiencing for real. It contains the magic and the melancholia that made it such an eternal dream. There are three genuine modern anthems here, which is astonishing in itself … so get behind the wheel and cruise beneath the neon heavens to the odyssey of the 80's.
Get in. Get out. Get away. But make sure this is playing as you do.
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