I am in the business of investing in movies by using the downstream revenues of a film's music score as collateral. It's a tricky proposition involving a rather convoluted algorithm on the finance side. Sometimes you make the right call -- as my team at the Cutting Edge Group did last year with Alexandre Desplat's score for The King's Speech, and this year for Cliff Martinez's score for Drive. My team and I spend way too much time listening to composers, both professional and fledgling. We like to think we know why some composers are just a whole lot better than others.
On December 23, the executive committee of the music branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences announced that the score for Drive would not be eligible for nomination in this year's Oscar race. Sources told a reporter that there were two problems: previously-recorded songs instead of score at key dramatic points, and Martinez was not the only composer listed on the official studio cue sheet.
I write this not to argue with the Academy decision. I write because if you are like me and love to listen to movies as well as watch them, Drive is singular. The aural tone of this film, from the Martinez score to the needle-drops of songs to the incredible sound effects design by Lon Bender, is out of this world, and nothing in any political or judging process can diminish what the artists on Drive accomplished.
The film, which stars Ryan Gosling and was directed by Nicolas Winding Refn , is exciting and violent and warm and odd in some very dark places (comedian Albert Brooks co-stars as a Jewish mobster who smashes a fork through someone's eye amidst a spate of bloody killings). Since it premiered at this year's Cannes Film Festival -- where it won a best director prize for Refn -- Drive has been about as polarizing as a film can be. Viewers can't agree whether they've seen a European art film or a very bloody take on Bullit. In the middle of crimson carnage come waves of disturbing electronica score from Martinez contrasted against Euro pop tunes like "A Real Hero" from College and "Under Your Spell" by Desire.
Martinez's score is so unusual for a film with so much action and violence. It's an ambient score, the kind that Martinez specializes in. (He has scored many Steven Soderbergh films since Sex, Lies, and Videotape.) The music that Martinez did for Drive is a lesson on what a real composer's job is, and the reason why some composers work over and over in today's Hollywood.
1) Film is a collaborative art, but it can be very undemocratic when it comes to whose vision it reflects. Some films, and Drive is one of them, come from a singular place. Martinez got into the head of the director, Refn, and let Refn's unique vision of a feminine underpinning to a story featuring extreme violence determine the music score. The entire sonic gestalt of the film serves the director's unique vision. Good composers like Martinez know when they are in the presence of a unique vision, and go with it. They don't fight it.
2) Martinez, who got his professional start in music as a drummer for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, uses a minimum of percussion in his Drive score. But like a great drummer, his score is in perfect tempo, pitch and volume with the film's internal sonic needs. Example: The source songs are mixed at such a high volume that the underscore would be overkill if it was played too loudly in the parts it was used. The Martinez underscore works in Drive because, while it subliminally propels the action, it's covert -- not overt like the source songs.
3) Martinez is the Steve Jobs of film scoring. Jobs knew so much about technology and design that he knew which extraneous elements he could remove from his Apple products and still have a great product. Martinez's Drive score is anything but dense; rather, it is spare but incredibly precise in its electronica orchestration. When you know what you're doing, you don't need the kitchen sink when it comes to orchestration.
4) Sometimes, success in the arts comes from surviving the first date. Martinez, Refn and Gosling are already working together again on Only God Forgives, a very dark story set in the underworld of Thai boxing in Bangkok. It's been a while since an idiosyncratic director, a virtuoso composer and a fearless actor had a chance to create a recurring "brand." Think Sergio Leone, Ennio Morricone and Clint Eastwood back in the 1960s with the spaghetti westerns. Their initial collaboration, A Fistful of Dollars, was a no-budget affair produced for $200,000. By the time of their third film together, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Eastwood was an international star, and Morricone's theme music was blaring from radio stations the world over. We may be at the very beginning of the oeuvre of Martinez/Refn/Gosling.
At the end of the day, there's a reason why art resonates with an audience and endures. Almost invariably, it's because an artist understands the audience doesn't know what it needs until an artist offers an open road to enlightenment.
Cliff Martinez is one of those artists. He is not going to win an Oscar for Drive, he's not even going to make the nomination ballot. But do not think for one moment that those who love film music will ever forget the work he did on Drive.
More on Philip Moross and Cutting Edge Group here: www.cuttingedgegroup.com.