Five years ago, when I published a 7,000-word, in-depth look at the Drive film and soundtrack, a few readers told me it was too early to truly tackle any kind of legacy. True, it was already influential then, but surely I should wait it out another five years until there would be more substantive things to write?
However, today, on the 10th anniversary of the film’s wide theatrical release, I can safely say that what I wrote (and what soundtrack musicians David “College” Grellier, Electric Youth, Johnny Jewel, Cliff Martinez, and others told Vehlinggo) largely still applies today — albeit with some caveats. It gave filmmakers and musicians permission to go fully into synth-driven music and adopt a neon-pink-laced aesthetic with various shades of retro overtones. It was cool (and even necessary) to mind the past to create something new. The artists on the album saw their lives changed irrevocably. Drive was earth-shattering in its own way.
So yeah, that’s still true in 2021. Even more so, really. “This sounds like the Drive Soundtrack” is almost a cliche at this point, given how often that phrase is used to describe certain songs or film music. Sometimes that descriptor misses the mark — finding itself attached to things too retro or lacking any reminiscence at all, and therefore missing the point. Sometimes, though, it’s a fantastic way to describe music.
Relatedly, I wrote something like the following in that aforementioned in-depth profile and I still stand by it: Drive is not explicitly a retro film and its music is not overtly synthwave. It is true that Kavinsky, College, Electric Youth, and Johnny Jewel (of the erstwhile band Chromatics and the active band Desire) all helped to pioneer the genre and inspire others to create in that mold. And it’s also true that the soundtrack (and the music’s deft deployment in the film) helped to magnify the largely MySpace- and -mp3-blog-oriented synthwave and adjacent scenes for a broader audience in the wake of the September 2011 wide theatrical release. But in isolation, the songs weren’t meant to be 1980s retro.
A Changing Legacy
Today, unlike in 2011 — when it was shining a light on what was then a five-year-old underground internet genre and in general opening the door for mainstream indie songs that would “sound like the Drive Soundtrack” — the situation is a little different.
Most of the original Drive beneficiaries in synthwave and adjacent realms have moved on from those scenes (and often the sound) they espoused in 2011. Of the artists on the soundtrack album itself, let’s look at their state of affairs in 2021.
Canadian duo Electric Youth (Austin Garrick and Bronwyn Griffin) are continuing to create modern synth-pop with some nostalgic references and are doubling down on their musically diverse film scores — but you’re not going to get an “’80s song” from them and in fact you only ever got one or two from them that sounded like that decade in the first place. Grellier has put the College project largely on ice. (He announced as much in Vehlinggo in 2018, but there was a one-off DJ set tied to a Paris premiere of the documentary The Rise of the Synths, in which he, yours truly, Electric Youth, and many others feature.) Their collaboration, “A Real Hero,” remains, and will always be, iconic, nevertheless.
Jewel has gone on to do less neon-nostalgic work on things like Twin Peaks: The Return and other titles, while also focusing on a host of new acts as Chromatics (“Tick of the Clock”) announced its end this summer. However, the Desire project (“Under Your Spell”) is still going strong and releasing engaging new singles regularly. Kavinsky (“Nightcall”) has long teased an album that we can expect any day now or not at all, and which in my estimation can’t possibly sound like synthwave at this point. (He’s long expressed his antipathy for the genre he helped to create 15 years ago.) Martinez’s scoring career is continuously robust, whether he’s continuing his collaborations with Refn or contributing great music to the latest Amazon shows.
When looking at what Drive inspired, or at least for that which it opened the door, there is kind of a parallel reality. In the underground, you have had umpteenth derivations of the soundtrack’s musical elements and the film’s visual ephemera. Although in the past five years, newer synthwave producers generally have only been aping the visuals. The derivations will feature classic images from the film in their music videos, but sometimes it seems they’ve never heard of College or Electric Youth. The music is much more akin to an nth degree facsimile of acts like The Midnight and Timecop1983 — who are spiritually inspired by Drive, rather than overtly.
This all makes sense, if you think about it. We’re 10 years out from when Drive reached the general public. There’s been a whole decade to turn out a succession of generation after generation of the inspiration-to-influence cycle, and that never ends well for a creative movement after a handful of rounds. (Think about what happened at the beginning of the 1990s with rock and what it sounded like by 1999, for example.)
So while in 2021 the Drive soundtrack itself remains a fresh, cool, and invigorating listening experience — from the pop songs to Martinez’s impeccable score — what came after it is a mixed bag. There are some truly amazing works of art that draw some inspiration from Drive, and then there is a host of oversaturated and generic material.
With all of this in mind, I’ve been vacillating since at least late 2019 about how to approach the 10th anniversary. After all, how to follow up that big fifth anniversary piece? What more is there to say? Well, there was more to say over the years, but it’s all come out in the several subsequent interviews I’ve done with Martinez, Electric Youth, and College. And how long should I be stuck on one thing, even if it is the primary reason Vehlinggo exists?
(I imagine I’d have changed my tune if I had been able to get interviews with director Nicolas Winding Refn, film editor Matthew Newman, or star Ryan Gosling, who was responsible for getting Refn and Jewel involved at all — the latter famously fired from scoring duties but nevertheless finding a notable role in the music. They all definitely have more to tell.)
Then of course I thought about one big failure of mine from the 2016 piece: I did not focus at all on Riz Ortolani’s “Oh My Love,” featuring his wife, Katyna Ranieri, on vocals. Perhaps fitting for Refn, the song was originally part of the highly controversial 1971 “Mondo” exploitation film, Goodbye Uncle Tom. (This is the one directors Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi filmed in Haiti to depict the antebellum American South, and which Roger Ebert said was “the most disgusting, contemptuous insult to decency ever to masquerade as a documentary.”) “Oh My Love” gets new life in Drive, which fosters a resurrection that focuses on its beauty amid chaos and violence of a less contemptuous variety. (Ebert really liked Drive, for what it’s worth.)
Nevertheless, as it stands, I find myself in a funny place. I’m less interested in Drive and its soundtrack as the years progress and more interested in what the parties involved have done since. On the music side, you can follow a lot of what they’ve been up to — especially Electric Youth — on the pages on this site. (The links are at the end of this piece, if you’re the impatient type.) It’s an album that sounded like the future in 2011 and in some ways still does in 2021, but the artists haven’t rested on their laurels and for the most part have used what Drive brought them to the best of their advantage. And we’re all better off for it.
In other words, perhaps the true legacy of Drive and its soundtrack — at least for the musicians on the album — is that this masterpiece hit like an earthquake with aftershocks we’re still feeling today, and over time it has kicked-off or reinvigorated the careers of the talented musicians whom the world had yet to really and truly grasp.
That legacy is a damn fine cup of coffee, if you ask me.
Lakeshore Records and Invada Records have put together a rather stunning 10th anniversary vinyl package that emphasizes the “noir” in “neon-noir.” (The fifth anniversary edition emphasized the “neon.”) You can pre-order it now via Invada (it looks like the title is sold out on Lakeshore’s Stateside site). It ships in October.
Some Key Drive-related articles on Vehlinggo:
- Drive: Revisiting the Neon-Noir Masterpiece (This is the big fifth anniversary piece.)
- The Life of Electric Youth (An in-depth interview with the duo, conducted mostly in their home studio in Toronto.)
- How a Punk Ethos Keeps a Legend Fresh: An In-Depth Interview with Cliff Martinez (A deep dive with the influential score composer.)
- Valerie Stories: 10 Years of College’s Essential LP ‘Secret Diary’ (Interviews with College and Electric Youth and others, such as the Discodust blog founder, about the early movement that inspired Drive and which the film and its soundtrack helped magnify.)