‘Drive’ at Five: Revisiting the Neon-Noir Masterpiece

Note: This piece looks at Nicolas Winding Refn’s iconic film Drive as it approaches its fifth anniversary. To aid in my quest, I interviewed soundtrack artists College, Electric Youth, Johnny Jewel (Chromatics/Desire), and Cliff Martinez, among others. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I’ve enjoyed working on it this year.  — Aaron

Drive — the paradoxically subdued and boisterous neon-noir from iconoclastic director Nicolas Winding Refn — turns five years old on Sept. 16. Let that anniversary sink in for a bit.

The film and its key player — the music — have defied mainstream culture’s ephemeral shelf-life and are still viable today. Music fans still buy the soundtrack and go down the Discogs rabbit hole of all the artists on it. Bands are still inspired by the chic synthpop aesthetic. Films still bear the sheen of Refn’s approach to filmmaking (and his and editor Matthew Newman’s song choices). 

Johnny Jewel of Chromatics, Desire, Glass Candy, Symmetry, etc. Photo Credit: Italians Do It Better.

Drive lasts because it is good. This is not meant as an understatement,”Johnny Jewel told Vehlinggo in an interview recently. “Anything created with real feeling and value continues to unfold over time.” Jewel shows up twice on the soundtrack — once with Chromatics on film opener “Tick of the Clock” and once with Desire on “Under Your Spell.” At one point, he was hired to score the film before the producers ultimately went with famed composer Cliff Martinez.

Austin Garrick, one-half of Electric Youth and one-third of the trio who created Drive’s romantic centerpiece “A Real Hero,” says he’s heard that everyone from cool, new artists to folks like the Backstreet Boys have yielded to Drive’s musical influence.

“I think its influence has been such that it’s contributed, however big or small, to what is now the new normal,” he told Vehlinggo recently.

At the start of the year, Drive’s fifth anniversary was wholly on my mind. The film, but more importantly the soundtrack, changed my life in many ways. Perhaps most importantly, Drive inspired me to finally start Vehlinggo and write about the music I love — even if I had already been listening to some of the artists before the film came out and even if it took me three years to finally publish my first post.

A Contemporary Template with Retro Elements

A Valerie and Friends quasi-reunion in Los Angeles, December 2014. From left, Uncle TNUC, David "College" Grellier, Austin Garrick, and Bronwyn Griffin. Photo Credit: College's Instagram account.
A Valerie and Friends quasi-reunion in Los Angeles, December 2014. From left, Uncle TNUC, David “College” Grellier, Austin Garrick, and Bronwyn Griffin. Photo Credit: College’s Instagram account.

I’ve been thinking heavily about how we all got here. I saw the film and music as having a cool, novel, and engaging aesthetic — colorful synths, great voices, tight beats, a comforting earnestness, and an unrepentant minimalism. The thing is, Drive’s use of some elements of the 1980s to create something new and contemporary had over five years led to some extraordinary escalations of nostalgic expressions.

People lump the Drive soundtrack and film in with the likes of films like Kung Fury and Turbo Kid, and even TV shows like Moonbeam City and Stranger Things. I love, and have written about, all of those, but they all are much more indebted to a nostalgic exercise. Right? Or, after five years, is Drive’s legacy also just another 80s love fest?

Some see Refn’s apparent Michael Mann influences — a shade of the starkness of 1981’s Thief and the neon of Miami Vice, along with the heavy use of synth-based music — and consider Drive a 1980s-nostalgia piece. Others see both the film and the music as using elements of that era to create something classic and timeless.

“Refn had a good idea to pay tribute to a certain style of movies from the 80s,” David “College” Grellier — who along with Electric Youth wrote Drive’s popular “A Real Hero” — told Vehlinggo recently. “[He] stayed within the boundaries of good taste and bad taste… The right balance when you are not too 80s.”

Photo Credit: Neon Dream Designs and Mondo.
A cross between a Vehlinggo hashtag and the cover art for Mondo’s 2013 vinyl press of the ‘Drive’ soundtrack. Photo Credit: Neon Dream Designs and Tyler Stout/Mondo.

Jewel says something similar. Drive will live forever because it “plays on familiar themes we have been exposed to while still remaining fresh.”

“The blend of sonic and visual nostalgia with a contemporary spin is always deadly,” he said.

Indeed! I don’t see Drive as an 80s retro film and I don’t think its music is, for the most part, 80s retro. “A Real Hero,” a modern classic, fits Drive so well as a love theme because it never gets too on-the-nose or cheesy. It uses our collective nostalgia to create something new, engaging, and timeless; just like Refn and crew do with the film.

Jewel’s contributions are likewise mostly modern in aesthetic, though “Tick of the Clock” has its John Carpenter moments. Kavinsky’s “Nightcall” is a brilliant opening credits number, but it’s a French Touch song produced by Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo of Daft Punk and French producer SebastiAn. Martinez’s score has its share of homages, but it’s still modern and more ambient than something you’d find in a giallo picture.

The music and film have certainly had their impact on the popularity of 80s retro, to be sure. People seeing the 80s so much in Drive amplified an interest in the burgeoning synthwave scene and henceforth inspired others to seek refuge in the pastiches of the likes of Mann and Carpenter. Nevertheless, this neon-noir masterpiece created a contemporary template with its retro elements. Perhaps this is the film’s greatest legacy.

Austin Garrick and Bronwyn Griffin of Electric Youth. Photo Credit: Chris Muir.

Electric Youth’s Garrick seems to agree with me.

Drive was the first time our music had been showcased in its intended context,” Garrick says. “… Creating a new, ‘contemporary template’… the intent… was to have that sort of an effect much more than to make something that’s already been done.”

Electric Youth, which includes Garrick’s lifelong partner Bronwyn Griffin, has certainly made some 80s-as-hell cuts, like “Running Back to You,” but “A Real Hero” and songs on their 2014 debut LP Innerworld aren’t overt 80s nostalgia pieces. Instead, they mix elements such as 80s-esque arpeggiated synthesizer bass parts with modern-sounding patches and styles to create an extraordinarily rich and genuine brand of synthpop.

“Some people take [Drive] and our music as 80s, which is fine, but to see it that way is to misunderstand our intent,” Garrick says. “In something timeless, there are often shades of the past, but that’s not where the focus of our creation lies.”

The idea is to make a contribution to the landscape of music and film — something that sticks and has an enduring impact. However, you can’t do that if you’re doing something that’s already been done, he said.

“I think with every one of [Refn’s] films he contributes to the landscape, and he did so immensely with Drive,” Garrick says. “We share that intent with everything we do.”

Victoria, British Columbia-based Michael Glover is a pioneer of the outrun branch of synthwave and co-founder of the Rosso Corsa Collective along with Austin, Texas-based Garrett Hays (AKA LazerHawk). Drive has had a major impact on the trajectory of his overtly 80s retro work as ActRazer and now Miami Nights 1984, both of which pre-date Drive by a handful of years.

Jean-Philippe Bernier (left) and Jean-Nicolas Leupi (right) of Le Matos ('Turbo Kid') did a show called "Montreal Vice" last year with Michael Glover, AKA Miami Nights 1984 (center). Photo Credit: Le Matos.
Jean-Philippe Bernier (left) and Jean-Nicolas Leupi (right) of Le Matos (‘Turbo Kid’) did a show called ‘Montreal Vice’ last year with Michael Glover, AKA Miami Nights 1984 (center). Photo Credit: Le Matos.

While Glover and his friends and contemporaries have certainly benefitted from the amplifying effects of the film, Glover joins his fellow Canadians in Electric Youth in asserting that Drive was never actually presented as an 80s throwback.

“People that are into our scene could see obvious parallels and inspirations from 80s movies and culture, but for the average viewer I’m sure it just came across as a good movie,” Glover wrote recently in an exchange with Vehlinggo.

Although I think people even outside of the growing and loyal synthwave scene saw Drive as more 80s than it was, I can still get behind Glover’s assertion. In fact, he wrote something I can get behind even more: “Drive was definitely more ‘synthpop’ than ‘synthwave’.”

Going forward in this piece, I’ll write about how this Thief-inspired, violent and glossy neon-noir changed the lives of (1) those who were a part of the soundtrack; and (2) those like Glover in the pre-existing retro scene that people are getting more into as they discover films like Kung Fury and Turbo Kid and shows like Stranger Things.

I’ll also look at how after five years, the impact of Drive is constantly growing and changing into something beyond what most would have expected at the time.

Amid all of this, I’ll stand by the assertion that Drive is much more than a nostalgia exercise, even if that’s how its impact has been most immediately felt. Thankfully, some pretty great people, such as most of the artists who made the soundtrack’s music, will be around to help me out.

What They Were Doing

The seeds of the Drive soundtrack, the pop numbers, and Cliff Martinez’s score can be traced to Refn’s familiarity with Johnny Jewel, the producer and musician behind acts like Chromatics, Glass Candy, Desire, and Symmetry, all on the Italians Do It Better label that Jewel now runs out of Los Angeles.

'Night Drive' cover art. Photo Credit: Italians Do It Better.
‘Night Drive’ cover art. Photo Credit: Italians Do It Better.

In 2008, Refn’s brilliant film Bronson, starring Tom Hardy, about one of England’s most notorious criminals, featured Glass Candy’s arpalicious “Digital Versicolor” a few times in some pretty bad-ass sequences. The song, on Glass Candy’s 2007 album, Beatbox, was part of a body of work of artists whose songs were tearing a hole in the fabric of underground pop in the mid- to late-2000s.

Meanwhile, Jewel was also becoming influential with Chromatics, a band he’d transformed into an exquisite dark-disco outfit. That same year, the band released Night Drive, which would prove to be a body of work that would stick to the Refn realm with an even stronger adhesive than Glass Candy. Songs like the title cut and “Mask,” along with instrumentals like “Tick of the Clock,” resonated with actor Ryan Gosling and Refn as they set forth to make Drive, according to reports at the time.

Drive endured various development challenges before Gosling came on board, but, when he did, he wanted Refn to direct and Jewel to score the film, according to a 2010 AOL article and other reports. Gosling had been a fan of Jewel’s various artistic projects, and once Refn was attached they expressed an interest in the Night Drive aesthetic for the film. According to a 2012 Pitchfork interview with Jewel, Refn and Gosling attended a Glass Candy show in Los Angeles and hired him on the spot.

Jewel told Vehlinggo that his time with Drive was all-encompassing. I’m not surprised by this. Jewel is known for his vigorous work ethic, toiling endlessly and carefully over a prolific piece of art until he deems it ready enough for public consumption.

“Like any strong piece of art, making a film is very intense,” Jewel said. “I lived it night and day for seven months.”

Permeating that intensity was a “perfect storm” of talent, he says.

Nicolas Winding Refn.
Director Nicolas Winding Refn. Photo Credit: Unknown.

“Here you have a director who is at the top of his game, but still a bit unknown; you have a composer making records that are on the verge of crossing over; and you have an actor quickly coming up through the ranks in Hollywood,” Jewel said. “It’s the perfect storm. It’s an incredibly rare situation, and the electricity surrounding the project could power the West Coast.”

But studio machinations changed the character of the storm, according to Pitchfork. Drive’s producers were concerned that Jewel was too green as a composer — they knew of his pop songs, but hadn’t known of his burgeoning skill with scoring, the article says. Instead, they hired the veteran Cliff Martinez, who ended up turning around a remarkable score in just a few weeks.

Cliff Martinez. Photo Credit: Robert Charles Mann (robertcharlesmann.com).
Cliff Martinez. Photo Credit: Robert Charles Mann (robertcharlesmann.com).

Martinez had had a long career as an innovative film composer by the time Drive’s filmmakers came calling. Importantly, director Steven Soderbergh had long paired his oeuvre with Martinez’s non-traditional, sparse, and ambient scores. Martinez’s 1989 Sex, Lies, and Videotape score still inspires composers to this day.

Given that Martinez wasn’t the type to schmaltz things up, it’s easy to see why the weary studio decided to go with him. He didn’t disappoint. His score is an gorgeous, often kinetic electronic affair that pays homage to certain elements of the likes of Tangerine Dream; and yet he maintains his deft touch at complementing and magnifying the machinations of a plot with sedated glassy tones and ambient moods.

Martinez told Southern California Public Radio recently that for the score he took his cues from the pop songs in the film — so everything from “A Real Hero” to “Nightcall” played a part in his process. And as he wrote to Vehlinggo in an email earlier this year, he said he didn’t need to approach the film with any new revolutionary touch.

“The process didn’t feel different at the time,” Martinez said. “Because the film and score achieved a level of popularity I was unaccustomed to, I felt I must have done something different — but I’ve been scratching my head ever since trying to figure it out.”

I would say there was a difference and it was more or less threefold. First, there’s that complementary relationship with the pop songs. There’s also the fact that Martinez’s score is powerful enough to stand on its own without overtly detracting from the film in the way something more 80s-sounding might have. Yes, it’s got some arpeggiated synth runs and neon-tinged melodies, but overall it’s a relatively subdued exercise to match a relatively subdued film.

Perhaps that’s because, as Jewel once told Pitchfork, the cues Refn used as a temporary score were dreamy, spacey fare from the back-catalog of the likes of Brian Eno, Atticus Ross, and Angelo Badalamenti. There was no intention for anything more 80s, apparently.

Perhaps most importantly, though, is that Martinez scored a film in which the music is a star on par with Gosling, Carey Mulligan, and Oscar Isaac. Or, as Martinez told 89.3 KPCC in July, Refn gives Martinez’s music a “fat, juicy role” that renders it a very important part of the process.

Divine Symmetry

Cover art for Symmetry's 'Themes for an Imaginary Film,' which isn't the lost 'Drive' score some think it is.
Cover art for Symmetry’s ‘Themes for an Imaginary Film,’ which isn’t the lost ‘Drive’ score some think it is. Photo Credit: Italians Do It Better.

An interesting side effect of the studio deciding on Martinez instead of Jewel is that Jewel still has hours of music he recorded for Drive, which has in the past five years opened the door to an urban legend about just what happened to all of it.

People say that a record by Jewel’s and Chromatics/Desire bandmate Nat Walker’s Symmetry project, called Themes for an Imaginary Film, is Jewel’s lost Drive score. In that previous 2012 Pitchfork interview, he shot that down, saying that that record only had a few elements of what he did for Drive.

“We got the same temporary cues from [Refn] as [Martinez] did,” Jewel told Pitchfork. “So the stuff I did for Drive was very similar to the stuff that’s actually in Drive because we had the same cues.”

Although his score might not have made it into the final cut, Jewel and his Italians colleagues certainly had a chance to shine.

Cover art for Desire's self-titled debut. Photo Credit: Italians Do It Better
Cover art for Desire’s self-titled debut. Photo Credit: Italians Do It Better.

Consider the opening sequence of Drive. As we see Gosling’s character, only known as Driver, on a job with some professional burglars, the whole glorious sequence — from the suspenseful heist to the getaway that evades the cops — Chromatics’ pulsating, and sometimes un-nerving, “Tick of the Clock” from Night Drive provides the perfect backdrop. It’s perhaps the closest thing this film’s soundtrack ever gets to sounding truly 80s.

Desire’s “Under Your Spell,” from their 2009 debut LP, also makes an appearance. Most people know it as the “I can’t eat/I can’t sleep/I do nothing but think of you” song from the party Carey Mulligan’s Irene is throwing to celebrate the return of her husband, Standard (played expertly by Oscar Isaac).

The chugging drums, the colorful and rising synths, and Megan Louise’s aching devotionals serve as the backdrop to what at the moment seems like the wholesale dissipation of a once-burgeoning love story between Driver and Irene.

‘A Real Hero’

David “College” Grellier performing one of his masterful songs. Photo Credit: PJ Skyman.

While Martinez was scoring films and while Jewel’s Italians family was making delectable synthpop and dark disco from their outposts in Portland, Oregon, and Montreal, Quebec, there was a notable electronic movement coming out of Nantes, France. With help from Toronto, this group would have a huge impact on Drive and countless artists thereafter.

The Valerie Collective is most often associated with David Grellier (AKA College), who founded the group with friends Frédéric “Anoraak” Rivière, Maethelvin, Forgotten Illusions, The Outrunners, Stephen Falken, Minitel Rose, and others. Close friends of Grellier who I like to consider members of Valerie were Canadians Bronwyn Griffin and Austin Garrick, otherwise known as Electric Youth.

Griffin and Garrick had been friends with Grellier for a few years before they all wrote and recorded “A Real Hero,” which they released in 2010. The first College-Electric Youth collaboration featured on College’s 2008 debut LP, Secret Diary. The cut, “She Never Came Back,” is a tight, minimalist piece of pop with a driving backbeat, all steered by Griffin’s vocals. Electric Youth would appear again in the Valerie context on the Valerie and Friends compilation in 2009, with a massive rendition of Clio’s Italo Disco classic “Faces.”

But it was the friends’ “A Real Hero” that has resonated the most with the general public. Its use — twice  — in Drive as essentially the film’s love theme helped cement the medium-paced synthpop cut in the mainstream consciousness.

The first time we heard College’s deep arpeggiated synth-bass, Griffin’s angelic vocals, and Garrick’s almost sacred lyrics — based on a poem his grandfather wrote about famed “Miracle on the Hudson” pilot Chesley Sullenberger — was that scene when Gosling’s Driver, Mulligan’s Irene, and Irene’s kid, Benicio, are driving along the emptied LA river en route to some idyllic creek on what must be one of the coolest dates ever. We hear it next as the end scene bleeds into credits, a markedly different time for those three characters.

Grellier says the driving force behind “A Real Hero” and the other pop songs on the Drive record is that they’re not trying to copy and paste from songs from previous eras.

“We just want to express a feeling,” Grellier says. “… [And] create something with references from the past in a contemporary way.”

Along the way, College and Electric Youth have created a sound that is really only described as being either a College sound or an Electric Youth sound. Genre classifiers don’t really work with them. Thankfully.

Giving You a ‘Nightcall’

Cover for Kavinsky's 'NIghtcall.' Photo Credit: Kavinsky.
Cover for Kavinsky’s ‘Nightcall.’ Photo Credit: Kavinsky/Record Makers.

Meanwhile, Vincent Pierre Claude Belorgey had been releasing retro-minded French Touch and electroclash songs under the moniker “Kavinsky” since 2006. He had been an actor and got into music after his pal Quentin Dupieux (AKA Ed Banger Records artist Mr. Oizo) gave him a computer, according to an interview he did with the defunct Big Stereo blog. (I couldn’t reach Kavinsky for a Vehlinggo interview.)

On EPs like Teddy Boy and 1986, Belorgey and producers such as French remixer SebastiAn relied heavily on Belorgey’s love for 80s culture, like Sega’s classic OutRun arcade game, after which he’d named his 2013 debut LP, Dario Argento’s Italian horror films, and thousands of other films from the era, according to Big Stereo.

But it was his third EP, released in 2010 on Record Makers, that would catapult him into a more mainstream conversation. The titular cut, “Nightcall,” was his first song with vocals — (ostensibly) SebastiAn’s processed lead vox are robotic and almost demonic, which CSS’s Lovefoxxx counteracts with her breathy, almost innocent pipes. “Nightcall” is also notable because it was produced with Daft Punk’s Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, as I mentioned earlier.

The whole package ended up being a dark, minimalist, and heavily compressed piece of French Touch bliss that would add a nice contemporary complement to the Mann-style opening credits of Drive.

You remember it: After we witness the nail-biting suspense of the opening heist scene, powered by Chromatics’ pulsating “Tick of the Clock,” there’s a cut to a helicopter shot of downtown LA at night underneath which “Nightcall” offers its assertiveness. If a viewer hadn’t already, this was the moment they realized something special was going on — that they were part of something.

When ‘Drive’ Came Out

Original-Drive-Cover-2011Drive, which premiered in American cinemas on Sept. 16, 2011, marked a turning point for Refn in some ways.

It was his first real Hollywood film, featuring actors like Bryan Cranston and Christina Hendricks, who were at the top of their game on influential shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men, respectivelyAlso in the mix were Ron Perlman, Albert Brooks in a decidedly un-Albert Brooks role, and, of course, Gosling. Mulligan was on the rise and Oscar Isaac had begun his path toward becoming one of the biggest movie stars in the world. (It was also the first feature film Refn directed but didn’t write — Hossein Amini penned the screenplay.)

Although Refn won the best director award in Cannes in May 2011, and although the picture had big stars and catchy cuts, Drive still proved divisive. After all, even with all of the gloss, and despite the fact that Refn was in some respects a director-for-hire, it was still Refn helming the operation. His pacing and visual style were omnipresent — and omnipotent. He called the shots.

Those expecting a Gosling-led action flick were disappointed. Of course, there is action in Drive. It might be sparse, brutal, meaty, and arty as fuck, but it’s action nonetheless. And yes, there are car-chase sequences. Sure, they’re not like something out of a John Frankenheimer film, but the stunts get pretty exciting. It’s just that they were accoutrements to a plot about the tough, impossible choices people have to make. The action did not take centerstage over the actors’ measured and memorable performances.

Critics loved it. Roger Ebert — RIP — enjoyed the non-CGI action sequences and wrote, “Here is a movie with respect for writing, acting, and craft. It has respect for knowledgeable moviegoers.”

The disparity between the marketing for the film, and the film itself, led to a lawsuit, though. The suit, filed by a Michigan woman who asserted that the trailer misled her into believing Drive would be more like Fast and the Furious or one of those films, was later dismissed by the Michigan Supreme Court.

‘Leaving a Lot of Pieces Out of the Puzzle’

Chromatics - 'Tick of the Clock' cover art. Photo Credit: Italians Do It Better.
Chromatics – ‘Tick of the Clock’ cover art. Photo Credit: Italians Do It Better.

Even so, it wasn’t just critics who loved it. The $15 million film ended up earning back its budget at least five-fold at the box office, and not all of those people felt tricked. One fan was Lauren Pardini of the dark disco/synthpop duo Pr0files, whose music often straddles the line between Kavinsky and Chromatics.

“I thought, Ryan Gosling is pretty damn hot and it makes downtown LA look badass,” she told Vehlinggo recently. “It made me proud to be a Los Angeleno. I loved that there was little dialogue, too.”

Pardini’s comment about the dialogue reminds me of something Jewel said about what Drive omits and how that is among the keys to its success.

“[Refn] and [editor Matthew Newman] are very strong together, leaving a lot of pieces out of the puzzle,” Jewel says. “This oblique aspect of their filmmaking and editing leaves room for us as viewers to project our own ideas into the film. [Refn] is known for simply asking over and over, ‘But what do you think?’ and this is key to his films’ impact on audiences.”

Every time you watch it, you see something new and different, he says. I agree. I’ve seen it dozens of times in the past five years, and there’s always some layer revealed that I completely and inexplicably missed. It often happens in those moments when there’s nothing but the music to capture your ears.

“There were more words on the pages of the script, but [Refn] made the tough decision to reduce the text to a skeletal level,” Jewel says. “This forces your brain to focus on the color and sound of the film more, which pushes the music and the cinematography to the front of the screen. You are then left in a position as a viewer where your senses are being assaulted by the screen. This is why people watch films.”

The music is also designed around what’s not there, as much as what’s there.

“There’s enough to hang onto and spike your senses, but there’s a minimalism and discipline in the sound that opens up slowly,” Jewel says.

This all resonated with critics and proponent viewers alike. They began to see the music as an inextricable part of Drive.

In his 2011 review of the film, James Verniere of the Boston Herald summed up what I and many other Drive aficionados have felt: “The Drive soundtrack is such an integral part of the experience of the film, once you see it, you can’t imagine the film without it.”

Another Boston critic, the Globe’s Wesley Morris, wrote a great line that complements his local counterpart: “It’s electronic music that situates you in LA both 25 years ago and five minutes from now.” Employing elements of the past in order to create something timeless, basically.

The soundtrack’s popularity in the world at-large wasn’t pre-ordained, though.

Cover art for Glass Candy's 'Beatbox.' Photo Credit: Italians Do It Better.
Cover art for Glass Candy’s ‘Beatbox.’ Photo Credit: Italians Do It Better.

Drive introduced the mainstream to what we were doing in the underground for years,” Jewel said. “We had already touched on it with [Refn’s] Bronson, [Glass Candy’s] Beatbox, and [Chromatics’] Night Drive. It was obvious to me that something was coming — there was a shift happening — but no one had any clue how well it would be received in the mainstream.”

But people got on board. Perhaps it was Gosling that drew them in, but once they were there they stayed for multiple servings. They enjoyed composer Cliff Martinez’s modernistic Tangerine Dream vibes, and were entranced by the pop cuts. The digital version of the album reached as high as number four on the iTunes charts, according to reports. Mondo and Invada issued various vinyl pressings of the soundtrack that would also sell briskly.

Recalling Drive

For the record, Jewel has only seen the completed cut of Drive once since its release, he says.

“Over the course of working on it, I watched it around 400 times in various stages,” he says. “It’s rare that I ever watch a film or listen to an album more than once after it’s released.”

“Films can take a year or two to see a theatrical release after I’ve finished the music,” continues Jewel, who scored Ryan Gosling’s 2014/2015 film Lost River and recently a Belgian film called Home, among other things. “By that point I’m wrapped up in what I’m working on at that moment.”

Electric Youth’s Bronwyn Griffin first saw Drive at the Toronto International Film Festival premiere, and from that moment, she tells Vehlinggo, “Drive has [had] such a strong hold on me.”

“I find it impossible that others didn’t experience what I did that day,” she said. “It’s the kind of film that visually sticks in your mind as if you’re a kid watching something you shouldn’t be for the first time, and that memory never fades. Then add an auditory experience so perfectly paired with those visuals and you see why it will hold its place in history.”

I understand that’s my personal opinion,” she continues, “and you may say, well, ‘she’s biased,’ but there are so many people that have approached me to share those same sentiments.”

Griffin’s assessment hits it on the head for me. Earlier this year, the French Institute Alliance Française here in New York held a screening of Drive in the organization’s massive theatre. Seeing — and, most importantly, hearing — the film again for the first time on a big screen in basically five years brought back all of the feelings she described. When the first arpeggiated synth notes of “A Real Hero” hit, it was a transcendent experience. More importantly, there were theatregoers there who’d never seen the film and left intrigued by the film and its music.

Austin Garrick, Griffin’s partner, had his own visceral reaction.

A snap of the iTunes charts in early 2012. Photo Credit: Electric Youth.
A snap of the iTunes charts in early 2012. Photo Credit: Electric Youth.

“Creatively, it proved to us that when you make good music from the heart, without compromise, it resonates with people,” he said. “I wrote that song from a place of true emotion, and I know Bronwyn with her voice and David [Grellier] with his music were coming from the same place.”

When Drive premiered, Martinez was in an enviable position. Not only was his score for that film showcasing his deft touch for a new audience, but a week later Steven Soderbergh’s massive Contagion, which also featured his score, was to be released.

“Suddenly the phone started ringing and not just for film work,” he told Vehlinggo. “I got calls about TV, video games, and commercials.” Among those video games was Far Cry 4, which was part of a franchise known for its excellent scores. His score for Showtime’s The Knick has also proven popular.

Drive also kicked off Martinez’s mutually and artistically fruitful relationship with Refn. After Drive, Martinez scored 2013’s Gosling-starring Only God Forgives and My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, the 2015 documentary that Refn’s wife, Liv  Corfixen, filmed about making the somewhat fraught Forgives. Martinez also scored The Neon Demon, Refn’s latest film and most mainstream since Drive.

“… The beginning of the relationship with Nicolas Refn… has been a good thing,” Martinez said.

Neon afterGlow

Even with all of the post-Drive activity, or perhaps because of it, Martinez seemed surprised when I asked him about how he feels about Drive’s relevance five years later.

“[It] feels like last year to me. I always see reviews, so I guess it remains relevant. I’m glad it’s still out there,” he told Vehlinggo. “In my world the impact seems to be more films using Drive as temporary music in their rough cuts. Maybe that has had an impact on films… I don’t know; I’m probably too close to it.”

‘… It Changed Our Lives…’

The film’s neon glow didn’t just help give the public yet another handful of reasons to admire Martinez’s work. It also helped shine a light on the projects behind “A Real Hero,” “Nightcall,” “Under Your Spell,” and “Tick of the Clock.”

A photo of the CD for the 'Taken 2' soundtrack. Photo Credit: Bronwyn Griffin.
A photo of the CD for the ‘Taken 2’ soundtrack. Photo Credit: Bronwyn Griffin.

The most on-the-nose example of Drive’s influence: Taken 2, the 2012 Liam Neeson-starring film, used both “Hero” and “Tick” in key sequences. It seemed as if the filmmakers were aiming to use those songs to similar effect to Drive. It worked out in an acceptable way, but you can’t really replicate the pure moments of Drive. That said, I’m sure it was nice for the artists to get some money and greater exposure for their efforts.

Aside from that, and the countless times other films, commercials, and campaigns have used the songs from the film — one interesting use of “A Real Hero” earlier this year was as the backdrop for a Chrysler Pacifica commercial starring comedian Jim Gaffigan —what Drive did for these artists is not only bring the underground aboveground but it also has allowed the artists to make a life out of music.

“… Its impact on us and the way it changed our lives, was big,” Garrick says. “… And its impact on our career goals is that we’ve continued to create on our own terms ever since. The things we’re working on now wouldn’t have come our way without [Refn] and [Matthew Newman, Refn’s editor] having the sort of vision they had for our music in film, which lead others to understanding the music in that same light.”

Griffin added to this, noting how affirming the placement of “A Real Hero” was.

“We knew what we wanted our music to become over the landscape of our career, but having that vision materialize so early on was just another positive sign that we were on the right track creatively,” she says.

Cover art for Electric Youth's 2014 LP 'Innerworld.' Art by Paul Roberts.
Cover art for Electric Youth’s 2014 LP ‘Innerworld.’ Art by Paul Roberts.

Garrick and Griffin are currently working on a number of projects, including the followup to 2014’s Innerworld LP (which features “A Real Hero” alongside plenty of exquisite synthpop gems), and some film scores.

For Grellier, whose College project has placed music in various films, exhibits, and advertisements since Drive, the film has allowed him a massive level of independence in his art.

“For me, it helped give me the ability to continue to create only what I want to,” he said. Shanghai, his first LP in two years, will be released this fall.

Browsing the Back Catalogue 

Jewel’s Italians Do It Better label exploded in popularity after Drive, a status that hasn’t lost steam in the past five years as the label finishes up its first decade. Since then, Jewel has scored films and special ad spots, and his various projects have played massive festivals, had key placements in films and advertising campaigns, and their every internet move is followed closely by a cadre of music blogs and publications.

Cover art for Chromatics' forthcoming 'Dear Tommy.' Photo Credit: Italians Do It Better.
Cover art for Chromatics’ forthcoming ‘Dear Tommy.’ Photo Credit: Italians Do It Better.

Currently, fans are awaiting a trifecta of releases — Chromatics’ Dear Tommy, Glass Candy’s Body Work and Symmetry’s Still Life. In the meantime, new fans are catching Drive and grabbing all of the existing catalog they can.

“I am so proud of what we did with Drive,” Jewel says. “It’s touching to see the chain reaction of new audiences checking out our back catalog for the first time. Real music lasts for ever ever.”

In 2013, Kavinsky released his OutRun record, which featured “Nightcall,” some of his more retro cuts from his past EPs and some new songs. Most of them were written with SebastiAn. The big single, the catchy “Odd Look,” was fairly popular and a version featuring vocals by The Weeknd even showed up on a 2013 remix EP and as a bonus cut on The Weeknd’s debut LP, Kissland.

For Pr0files’ Lauren Pardini and Danny Sternbaum, the retro-moderno elements of the music inspired them to create songs like the Kavinskyesque “Empty Hands” and the Chromatics-esque “Like a Knife” that could easily fit in with the pop songs on Drive. In fact, it’s when I shuffle Drive songs in with artists like Pr0files that I’m reminded how timeless the film’s songs truly are.

“On some level, we wanted to make a record that could serve as the soundtrack for a movie like Drive,” Sternbaum told Vehlinggo recently. “Drive tapped into this bleak yet romantic feeling that I’ve always gravitated towards in both music that I listen to and also make.”

“I think for our first album, Jurassic Technologie, we realized after a few months of working on it that it shared a lot of similarities in tone to the movie and soundtrack,” he continued.

More 80s Than 80s

In the afterglow of Drive, the film’s flirtations with nostalgic pastiche have been amplified significantly in what came after. People have gotten much more addicted to 80s nostalgia. They got a taste while experiencing Drive and ran with it.

Promo art for 'The Guest.'
Promo art for ‘The Guest.’ Photo Credit: Picturehouse.

Adam Wingard’s The Guest was a low-budget action film released in 2014 whose dark synth score was helmed by Steve Moore of Zombi. The soundtrack cuts were either actual 80s songs from artists like Love and Rockets and Clan of Xymox, or dark songs by contemporary artists like SURVIVE (one-half of which scored Stranger Things) that sound like they’re from the 80s. There was even an Italians Do It Better track, called “The Magician,” featured in a bad-ass bar-fight scene. There was also a track by dark retrosynth musician Perturbator, known for his haunting, metal-like synthwave work.

In 2015 came Kung Fury, which took nearly every 80s trope you can think of — buddy cops, Miami, cheesy synth numbers, David Hasselhoff, time travel, Nintendo, etc. — and rendered an experience that was more 80s than the 80s. The film and its soundtrack, featuring synthwavers like Mitch Murder, Lost Years, Highway Superstar, and Betamaxx, are nothing like Drive, but nevertheless share many of the same fans.

Alex Karlinsky (AKA Highway Superstar) says Drive gave him the push to get his own thing started, after playing in bands and productions that belonged to other people for so many years.

Screenshot of a time travel sequence from 'Kung Fury.' Photo Credit: Laser Unicorns.
Screenshot of a time travel sequence from ‘Kung Fury.’ Photo Credit: Laser Unicorns.

“A few months after Drive came out, I had this friend at work who I used to talk about music with,” the Israel-based Karlinsky told Vehlinggo this year. “He came running to my office one day saying there’s this movie with an amazing soundtrack he thinks I’ll enjoy. His understatement was overwhelming.”

Karlinsky then spent hours upon hours surfing in YouTube’s related videos section for the musicians from the film and related works. 

“… Hearing these artists and that familiar ‘sound’ made me feel right at home,” he said. “It made me realize that it’s possible to achieve this sound today as well, and [that] there are acts that are already living my dream.”

Turbo Kid from 2015 is another film. Although it relies on 80s pastiches gleaned from the likes of The Goonies or Mad Max, it was much more of an earnest, heart-centered affair at its core than Fury.

Art for the film 'Turbo Kid.'
Art for the film ‘Turbo Kid.’ Photo credit: Epic Pictures Group.

The film’s awesome score, provided by Montreal’s Le Matos (who have collaborated with Electric Youth in the past) owes some of its charms to the 80s, but it’s held together with a contemporary, almost club-oriented shell. Fans of Kung Fury, The Guest, and Drive also love this one, but it’s a far different take on nostalgia than Refn’s turn.

Of the non-Drive artists whose careers were affected by the film is Michael Glover. His Miami Nights 1984 sunny synthwave/outrun project saw placements in shows like HBO’s non-retro Eastbound and Down and Red Oaks, Amazon’s show about a country club in the 1980s starring Paul Reiser.

“I hate to say it, but I feel like Drive was some sort of mental verification that I wasn’t wasting my time writing 80s-inspired music,” even if Drive wasn’t promoted as an 80s retro film, Glover said. “The other films you mentioned [Kung Fury and Turbo Kid] make it obvious that they’re trying to replicate the corn and grit of the 80s, which probably brought more attention to the 80s-inspired [music].”

Nantes, France-based Maethelvin, a Valerie Collective member and friend of David “College” Grellier, says Drive helped more than just his friend be exposed to a whole new audience.

“The impact was actually quite huge for the Collective,” he told Vehlinggo recently. “I have a feeling it also brought us a new kind of audience — [one] a bit different than the one we had in the first years of the Collective.”

Specifically, for him, it opened up new possibilities for touring in new countries and in new venues, he said.

From ‘Drive’ to ‘Stranger Things’

Steelberg's VHS cover for the popular Netflix show 'Stranger Things.'
Steelberg’s VHS cover for the popular Netflix show ‘Stranger Things.’

Then there’s Netflix’s sci-fi/horror series Stranger Things. Although Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein have crafted an 80s-era Tangerine Dream-like score bathed in modern synths, the show’s visuals are sometimes near-fascimiles of your favorite work from the 80s and even early 90s. In it, you’ll find touches of the camaraderie of friends found in E.T., The Goonies and Stand By Me; the horrors of Stephen King; and the scientific/supernatural phenomenon of The X-Files and Twin Peaks.

To me, the show personifies the apex of a nostalgia exercise, albeit one that’s very well done. But interestingly Grellier sees something more to it — he says the show’s creators, the Duffer Bros., have crafted something from the same great artistic place as Refn.

Stranger Things will become a TV classic, because the Duffer Bros. have good ideas like [Refn],” Grellier says. “I’ve been waiting a long time for this kind of TV series.”

Grellier has been a fan of SURVIVE since at least 2009, when he wrote about the band on the Valerie blog, and says he loves the “right balance” the Duffer Bros. take with the series. They keep it 80s enough, he says, but never go into the arena of bad taste.

As with Drive, Stranger Things works because of the close relationship between the show and its music, Grellier says. In addition to the new score, it also features songs from the 80s.

“That kind of alchemy… an association between movies and songs… is rare nowadays,” Grellier said. “All production is so standard — so same[y] — when people see something different like Stranger Things or Drive, they love those good things and talk about them. We live in a cultural world that rewards that kind of risky affair. People love good things. They are not stupid.”

Drive into the Future

Electric Youth's Bronwyn Griffin holds the cassette release of the 'Drive' soundtrack. It was released recently as an Urban Outfitters exclusive. Photo credit: Electric Youth.
Electric Youth’s Bronwyn Griffin holds the cassette release of the ‘Drive’ soundtrack. It was released recently as an Urban Outfitters exclusive. Photo credit: Electric Youth.

So we’re still here — after five years — talking about a film that almost never got made, or at least could have ended up very differently. An initial adaptation of James Sallis’ Chandlersque book — a novel filled with dialogue and featuring scenes set in taquerias and the like — was slated to become a Steve McQueenesque Hugh Jackman star vehicle. Instead, it’s a minimalist neon-noir crime thriller that’s paradoxically iced up and warm to the touch, starring a fascinating array of actors and an equally minimalist, synth-heavy soundtrack.

And if we’re talking about the film now, five years later, we’ll probably still be talking about it in 2021 and beyond.

“I am always hearing echoes of how we are such a fast-paced culture, things are constantly evolving, and people are always looking for immediate stimulation with whatever is new,” Bronwyn Griffin says. “So, it’s easy to think that an artist’s work may just disappear in the sea of everything being created, or that has been created.”

A special edition of Invada's fifth anniversary release for 'Drive.' Photo Credit: Invada.
A special edition of Invada’s fifth anniversary release for ‘Drive.’ Photo Credit: Invada.

“But,” she added, “I strongly feel that if there is a timeless nature to your work — melody and a stunning visual being the first things that come to mind in our case — it will live on forever.”

“… Everything about Drive, and the music scene as well, will have its place,” Griffin says. “I’m still reeling that I’m a part of it!”

(Note: If you’re interested in buying Invada’s fifth anniversary Drive vinyl, take note that it’s loaded with cool stuff and will be on sale at the end of this month. It will feature brand-new liner notes written by Refn and Martinez. It’s presented with awesome new artwork by Lakeshore Records art director John Bergin.)

(Note # 2: I realize I wrote nothing about the opera cut on the soundtrack — Riz Ortolani’s “Oh My Love (Feat. Katyna Ranieri).” But don’t worry. I will tackle it another time.) 

(Note # 3: In 2014, BBC radio personality Zane Lowe did a rescore of Drive that I didn’t want to touch in this feature. However, I will say this: It was widely panned as an — and I’m paraphrasing — unnecessary and a bizarre act of hubris.)

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