Cliff Martinez Expertly Conveys Refn’s Inner ‘Neon Demon’

(Before I get too deep into this, just know that Cliff Martinez’s score for The Neon Demon is so very good. Just know that going into this.)

I’m running late. Out of cycle. Out of time. Losing the buzz. The Neon Demon came out three weeks ago. I know this because I’ve seen it and because I had pre-ordered the digital version of Cliff Martinez’s exquisite score, which I have listened to more than a dozen times since its June 24 release.

I haven’t been passionate about keeping a regular writing schedule this summer. Truth is I could lay blame at being “busy” with various things – a day job, friends, my girlfriend, or the big project coming in September I’m always teasing – but really I’m just feeling rebellious about the culture right now.

As a culture, we consume and discard too quickly. Music and films that haven’t been released can live forever, but those that hit the stores or the theatres are doomed to people caring for only a few days – a couple days if lucky. (Already certain parties are declaring The Neon Demon a flop.) So I’m slowing down and trying to really inhale the art. I want to measure it in weeks and months, and not minutes and hours.

I saw The Neon Demon on Friday, June 24, at the Angelika in New York. I enjoyed it immensely. (The Q&A with director Nicolas Winding Refn was fascinating, if not entirely revelatory. Let’s just say he really really digs working with Martinez.) Since that day, in my extensive study of the score, I’ve done my deep-dive while walking the streets of New York or sitting on the train or in the back of a car, and even while trying to relax in the arboreal bliss of the state of Vermont. But in all of that time I never wrote a damn thing about any of it, other than a few silly social media nods.

Now it’s time, though. I’ve consumed the art, but I’ve also lived in it. And oh is it a wholly profound experience. First, let’s look at the visuals before we delve into Martinez’s expert work.

‘You’re the Sun’

In the film there are established models who will do anything they can to harness the energy and beauty of the nubile Jesse (played expertly by Elle Fanning), including some truly ferocious stuff. The culture has moved on from them and is now obsessed with this newer, younger model. So they want to do anything they can to absorb an essence they say shines like the sun.

Amid all of that is a particularly misogynistic Keanu Reeves, making his turn in 2000’s The Gift look mild by comparison. He too wants his share of Jesse, perhaps her body more than her energy.

The competitive spirit in the film is one that exists in the “real” world of music writing, too. It’s a rampant competitiveness, and fear of being cast aside, left out, and losing whatever “it” there once was. I can certainly identify with such a fight, although I usually express it by taking “too long” to review something that’s barely been out but that everyone else has written about.

I don’t want to give anything away, so I’ll keep it at that. However, I should note that like with all of his previous work, especially since Drive, Refn has crafted a somewhat unsettling world that is nevertheless gorgeous. There may be blood, corpse-fucking, and vapid and vampiric miscreants all over this horror film, but it all looks so very stunning.  The hues and contrasts through which the film is shot will blow your mind.

About the Refn-Martinez Relationship

I’ve been thinking a lot about this score, and its relationship to the film, and about what it means for the Refn-Martinez dynamic. After all, this film represents their third foray into an audio-visual partnership. I’ve been wondering about the subversive nature of the film and how it has inspired me to be more subversive, or at least entertain a few moments of insurrection against the rapid-fire, discardable culture we embrace today and which the two so expertly convey on screen and in my speakers.

In a recent interview with Southern California Public Radio, Martinez said he enjoyed working with Refn for a few reasons. In addition to just plain enjoying Refn’s films, Martinez likes the freedom the director gives him. Refn gives Martinez a “fat, juicy role,” making the music so important to his films. That’s true with pop cuts – think of Drive – as well as the score. Martinez also talked about how Refn went so far as to strip away dialogue in Only God Forgives and leave Martinez to pick up the slack with his music. Needless to say, they’re a tight pair by now. But their dynamic on The Neon Demon is even tighter, and the conversations deeper, in some respects.

The Music

Cliff Martinez playing Baschet Cristal. Photo Credit: Robert Charles Mann.
Cliff Martinez playing Baschet Cristal. Photo Credit: Robert Charles Mann.

In a stylized, oft-poetic way, Demon portrays the competitive grind and sheer artifice of the modelling world, and probably Los Angeles as a whole to an extent.  The emotions are intense and massive, even in the most sedated scenes. Martinez does an excellent job of using throbbing synthesizers, scattered guitar expressions, pulsating drum machines, and ambient textures to convey this.

However, this time around Martinez works less like a counterpoint to Refn than he has in the past, when he would have tempered ostentatious visuals that seemed to call for compositions as equally stylized. (Think of Drive – the infamous elevator scene has a delicate and crystalline ambient love theme that counters the crunch of violence between The Driver and a would-be assailant.) While Demon certainly has shades of this, more than ever in their three-picture-run-so-far Martinez plays the role of amplifying Refn’s bombast.

This is a pretty great thing, really. Not sure if it was Refn’s call or Martinez’s, but the composer has a lot more room to go wild on Demon. Peppered throughout the ambient themes are instances of dark disco, frenetic arpeggiated synthesizers, colorful dissonance and some seriously catchy themes that could be easily be repurposed into catchy hooks for a pop number. Even Drive’s amped up, but still tempered, arp cues never got so intense.

One example of all of this is the title theme. It starts out with a synth bass and some ambient musings before breaking into a pulsating dance number. “Messenger Walks Among Us” tracks similarly, blending dark disco elements with gorgeous synthetic strings and pads and some eerie sound effects.

Julian Winding, Refn’s nephew and the son of Red Sonja actress Brigitte Nielsen, offers his own disco number to add to Martinez’s work. “Demon Dance” is a thrilling cut with synths that stab their melodies through a ghoulish atmosphere and a driving backbeat. It sounds close enough to Martinez’s work that it doesn’t detract from the overall corpus of the score. It only helps convey the film’s unbridled narcissism.

Back to Martinez, “Runway” is dripping in beautiful arpeggios that complement a melodic reprise of the title theme. This gives way to chaotic and distorted synth parts and a dissonant monosynth lead bathed in gigantic displays of foreboding and recklessness.

“Are We Having a Party” incorporates acid-house bass and tempered, distorted guitar riffage, the both of which are decorated with both spacey synths and a progressively growing backbeat that all give way to Angelo Badalamenti-style minor chords played on keys straight out of “Twin Peaks.”

For the quieter work, like “Take Off Your Shoes” and “Ruby at the Morgue,” Martinez paints intimate moments bathed in glassy synthesis. On “Jesse Sneaks into Her Room,” he dabbles in Disney-style fairy tales covered in a heaping spoonful of sheer dread.

The other non-Martinez tracks are electro-punk and pop cuts that largely stay within the confines Refn and Martinez call for. Although this time, unlike with Drive, I get the impression Martinez wasn’t taking his cues from either of the tracks – Sweet Tempest’s chunky “Mine” and Sia’s very-Siaesque (and very good) “Waving Goodbye.”

Overall, Martinez’s exquisite art has taken an even bigger role in his journey with Refn. But beyond that, Martinez has demonstrated that he’s able to convey virtually any mood a director requires while retaining shades of himself. Think about how different Refn’s films are from those of Steven Soderbergh, the director with which Martinez has worked the most.

No matter if it’s a mainstream film like Traffic or an art film like The Neon Demon, Martinez puts a film’s themes through a clarifying rinse that is 100 percent of the filmmaker’s vision as much as it is wholly his own. And he only gets better. I can’t wait to see what Refn and Martinez are cooking up for their next partnership.

To hear the entire soundtrack, take a dive into Spotify. Or buy it from Milan Records. Italians Do It Better also has a couple hundred available on its Big Cartel page.

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