“The weirdest compliment that I get is, ‘The music was so great I didn’t know that there was any,’” film composer Cliff Martinez told Carson Daly in a late-night interview that aired late last year.
At the time, the former Red Hot Chili Pepper was promoting two different movie scores — the eerie trembling of the germophobic horror story Contagion and the anxious pulse that accented the bloody mob thriller Drive, out on DVD this week. And while it’s not every day that a film composer swings through late night TV, there’s very little about Martinez’s approach to composition that parallels the sounds of his contemporaries.
He first caught my attention 10 years ago, with the release of Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris. A minimalistic (and little-seen) adaptation of the Andrei Tarkovsky classic, the film was a stripped down variation on Tarkovsky’s cerebral mystery. Many critics hated Solaris, but something about its moods and textures struck me, and a good part of that came from Martinez’s music. Filled with pulsating, fleeting drum beats and electronic glitches that evoked the isolation and agony of George Clooney’s grieving widower, sequences like this flashback have always stuck with me because of the ambiance:
As I fell deeper in love with the Solaris soundscape in subsequent years, Martinez became one of the few composers that I actively searched out. I read about his time as drummer with the Red Hot Chili Peppers — which seemed perfectly appropriate given the rhythms of Solaris — and I started looking for other films that he had scored. It didn’t surprise me that he had done the music for Traffic, another bleak and brooding composition that favored ambient swells:
But after Solaris, much to my dismay, Martinez seemed to drop off the radar. Between 2002 and 2008, he worked on only eight scores — the most prominent being Narc and the box office bust Wicker Park.
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That all changed last year, when Martinez returned with scores for three different films: The Lincoln Lawyer, Contagion and Drive. The latter two scores might be Martinez’s best. In Contagion, a thriller that stands apart from other pandemic films for its non-hysterical depiction of a disease’s brutal and unrelenting spread around the globe, Martinez developed an electronic march that was insistent and implacable — a deep churning that slowly grows unstable and chaotic as Soderbergh ties together footage of a superbug traveling thousands of miles with ease. It’s ominous, urgent, and dire:
Martinez’s approach is antithetical to what so many film composers strive to accomplish. In most movies, the music serves to pinpoint emotional cues and amplify sentiments; when the violins swell the heart should swoon, and when the clarinets chirp it’s clearly time to chuckle. But Martinez’s music is not tied to sweeping climaxes but tends to be used most during the expository segments. He fuels the plotline, and his rhythms turn the spread of a virus into a calculated death march of sorts – a foregone conclusion.
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In Drive, director Nicolas Winding Refn employs Martinez even more subtly. What’s most notable about the Drive score is that the music is barely there, lurking beneath the surface, drifting on the wind. And yet in a film of few words — and in this opening sequence with no dialog — it is an absolutely essential ingredient. It’s films like this that I find most immersive, ones where visuals trump the words and music is used less as an emotional tool than one of tone, mood and temperament. In Drive, the music serves as an undercurrent of sorts that challenges the audience to look closer, to lean in, shading the scene as it unfolds rather than pausing the action for a release. Here’s a taste:
Maybe it’s just a coincidence, in terms of the directors he’s collaborated with thus far or the bleak subjects that he’s been asked to work with, but I’m a huge fan of the Martinez approach. With two more big projects already on the horizon (the Richard Gere financial thriller Arbitrage and Refn’s Drive follow-up Only God Forgives) here’s hoping that Martinez finally gets the exposure he deserves. Maybe he’ll even convince a few other directors out there to think differently about how they use their sounds to broaden their stories.
*The original version of this piece incorrectly identified a Chromatics song as a Cliff Martinez composition.