MOVIE MUSIK: CLIFF MARTINEZ, WINDING REFN & THE NEON DEMON [2016]


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Cliff Martinez has been in the world of film composers for decades and over recent years has firmly placed himself in the same company of heavy-hitters such as Alexandre Desplat and Hans Zimmer, gradually sharpening his style to a sharp point, bringing us to this creation in particular: arguably his best yet. The critical reaction to this soundtrack in particular confirms his loud presence within the world of cinematic scores, not to mention cinema in general (In his review of the film itself, Jason Bailey comically noted that this soundtrack is the business, among other compliments that I fully agree with).

Martinez’s approach to his craft is has always been unique and atypical to his contemporaries; a result of his past musical experience. He didn’t come from a background of composing/orchestration in any way, nor was he involved in any type of digital/electronic music – which is hard to believe considering some of his electronically driven work, especially this one.

He was in fact a drummer. His skill with the sticks is perhaps the biggest key to his unique compositions, and I’d lay down ten bucks that he still has a smash on a drum kit when he can.

Of all the genres he could have hailed from, it was early 80’s LA punk. As opposite to film composing as I can think of. He played in a few bands before being recruited by the very young Red Hot Chilli Peppers to drum on their debut album, and was immediately playing interesting, varied and often complex beats.

This is the mark of a great drummer. Similarly, the mark of a great composer. Personally, never feel I have reached my ceiling as a drummer. There is no ceiling. I feel much like Cliff in this regard; I always want to improve, to improvise. to sound like no other drummer. I’m consistently my worst critic.

Being discontented is an important weapon to have in your arsenal,” Martinez once mused in an interview. “The great Anthony Robbins said… when you’re satisfied or really content, that’s when you really get into trouble.”

After his demo tape became a part of tape trading it eventually fell into the hands of a young Steven Soderbergh. Sex, Lies, and Videotapes began a partnership that has lasted since its 1989 release.

Roughly 30 years after that first collaboration, his established style very hard to mistake as anyone else – often instantly recognisable. That being said, he doesn’t churn out the same material. In fact, the opposite is true. His most consistent skill though, almost a trademark of his work, is his increasing ability to rhythmically go hand in hand with the pacing of a film, and to sync the music with the scenes they feature in, a trait that adds to The Neon Demon’s aesthetic value.


His best work arguably began in 2011, where he scored Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive. Refn obviously liked what he heard, hiring Cliff for his next two films, as well as his latest creation, the ten-part Too Old to Die Young, in which it is almost immediately apparent that Martinez is behind the scenes.

Each collaboration with Refn is vastly different: The score to Drive is for the most part ambient, melodic and light, a stark contrast against the film itself, but aligned with the Driver’s values. 

Only God Forgives is often rhythmically driven, sometimes combining this with traditional orchestration. There is some minor synth work, but mainly ambient in nature. A few traditional Thai tracks complete the atmosphere. It should be noted that this was a collaboration with other musicians, most notably with fellow composer Gregory Tripi, and to a lesser extent, Mac Quayle, the man behind Mr Robot’s unique atmosphere.


The score to The Neon Demon is different again, but fitting. Powerful synthesizer-fuelled sounds create an appropriately menacing atmosphere which is occasionally sprinkled with lighter, more melodic and minimalist keyboard work. Three well selected tracks that he had little or no involvement in also feature and add further texture.

While it is lazy to say that every track fits its scene, it truly is the case regarding The Neon Demon, and especially the decisions by Martinez and/or Refn as to when to use the score, and when to use silence, which when contrasted against the energetic score makes the silence almost deafening. The way the volume often slowly fades in or out also plays a subtle part in the overall atmosphere

The first track, used for the opening credits as well as the first scene, serves as a sign of what is to follow. It is followed by an existing song, played when two characters walk into a nightclub: the song being Mine by Sweet Tempest. Its vast difference to the rest of the score conveniently connects with the contrast of Jesse’s anxiety and naivety compared to everyone around her.

Following this is a memorable conversation in the bathroom. The silence during this socially awkward situation (“All she wants to know is, who are you fucking?”) is a great contrast to the preceding track and the next, but it is impossible to know whether this was Martinez’s idea, Refn’s, or both.

After leaving the bathroom, ‘The Demon Dance’ begins when an exhibition starts. This is the first of many times where we see Martinez’s skill to have the images and music in rhythmic harmony. The song was written by Julian Winding (Refn’s son), but it is obvious that Cliff’s score has bled into Julian’s song as he has since released two fantastic albums, none of which have a track that possesses the atmosphere of The Demon Dance. The consistent bass ‘doofs’ of the song often accompany the camera’s switch from Jesse and the other girls to a levitating women. This, combined with strobe lighting: white when Jesse is on screen, red when the two other models are, make for a definitive Refn sequence.

SWEET TEMPEST – MINE

JULIAN WINDIN – THE DEMON DANCE

Later into the film, Jesse finds movement among the shadows in her room. She goes to the owner of the motel, then follows him and his lackey as they make their way to her room. During this small walk, the music is muted, ever-so-slowly evolving. When the mess in her room is revealed, the track changes: only two notes are used to tremendous effect. When the intruder is clearly seen, as it growls the track opens up with haunting female chanting in the background and slightly more complex instrumentation.

Admittedly, only two bars of the last musical sequence are uttered in the film, fading into the background as the scene cuts to white. The full song however features stabbing synthesizers and much more than two bars of the aforementioned brief sequence. Another reason to indicate the soundtrack is an amazing listen it its own right.

THERE’S SOMETHING IN MY ROOM:

This ability to evolve a track as a scene progresses is one thing, but his ability to create a dark atmosphere that also has a slight, contrasting lightness to it is further impressive. The party-like bass ‘doofs’ accompany menacing tones in the second half of the opening track, creating what seem to be opposing intentions. The same technique is amplified in ‘Are We Having a Party’, as bassy, low-end synths create a feeling of dread while higher-range synths coupled with a repeating rock riff lightly contrast the darkness, culminating in the climax of the film which, like the music, is dark and negative while also being positive, albeit in a very morbid way and within the confines of the film

ARE WE HAVING A PARTY:

The final track of the film, ‘Get Her Out of Me’, is one of the most varied and complex, utilising all these methods, as well as being one of the few tracks that progresses with many changes in texture. However, the most engaging track (both within and separate from the images), again using all his tools, is easily ‘Runway’.

Effortlessly following the fading previous track, it gently moves through several layers and styles in a brief amount of time. Yet again, it rhythmically follows the scene: the track evolves, starting intensely which briefly leaves as Jesse loses herself in her mind. It changes again when her personality begins to transform, the lighting moving from blue to red. This brief reprieve from the evocative synth-work is book-ended with a powerful, stabbing synth that is timed perfectly to the first bright flash we see while Jesse is still lost in her mind

GET HER OUT OF ME:

RUNWAY:

“So tightly synced to the picture and its tones that it feels less like accompaniment than parallel dialogue” is another accurate observation from Jason Bailey, as Martinez’s roots as a drummer are obvious, with many tracks wound together with the movie like vines. Also noteworthy is that most of the tracks aren’t used in their entirety – rather they’re modified to fit the film, but on the soundtrack they often sound very different, most sounding like fully written songs. This is perhaps the biggest reason why I’d happily call this an album, as well as a soundtrack. 

For anyone who is a fan of electronic, synthesizer heavy music, this album must be heard. Personally, it is easily what I listen to more than anything else, from a huge library to of music. Below is the soundtrack in its entirety.

THE NEON DEMON OST