5 Pieces of Film Music That Define Nicholas Winding Refn as an Audio-Visual Auteur

Updated on March 5, 2018
Director Nicholas Winding Refn and composer Cliff Martinez
Director Nicholas Winding Refn and composer Cliff Martinez

"I try to approach every film I make as if it were a piece of music. Not because I can play an instrument or read a score, but purely because I use music as my main inspiration. Like a healthy drug, music heightens my emotions and allows me to experience the film in my head as I’m making it and since I shoot in chronological order I force myself to make all decisions based on instinct." (Refn. 2016)

Nicholas Winding Refn's more contemporary English language films are dominated by electronic soundtracks/scores that produce both ambient and obtrusive melodies that convey a narrative to the surreal images captured by his camera. This article will analyze specific examples of film music and it's direct relation to Refn’s signature imagery that forms his critically acclaimed oeuvre.

'Bronson' (2008)
'Bronson' (2008)

1. Glasscandy - Digital Versicolor

Electronic music, especially the kind of synth-pop used in Refn’s films, is often regarded as two things; feminine and European. This is interesting in regards to the film music’s relation to the Refn’s signature masculine narrative themes.The more commercial section of films within Refn’s oeuvre has featured soundtracks consisting of songs taken from synth-pop genre music artists. Like many of the production within this era of the director's Career, in Bronson (2008), Refn has hand-picked several synth-pop tracks that provide a feminisation that counter-points the masculine images on screen.

In Bronson, gender counter-pointing is portrayed in several scenes. The most significant scene, however, is a montage sequence that depicts Charlie Bronson’s (Tom Hardy) life on parole. The montage is filled with violently aggressive images such as; vicious barking dogs, rough heterosexual sex, but the most masculine of all is a bare-knuckle fight. A rhythmic wave of synth-pop from the instrumental bridge of Glass Candy’s Digital Versicolor is played in coherence with these images. During the bare-knuckle fight, additional synth tones are paralleled to each aggressive strike given to the hyper-masculine bodies on screen, essentially mickey-mousing each movement.

According to Justin Vicari, "Bronson’s masculinity is rabid and self-destructive even as he upholds a violent rejection of all-male orders. Coming into contact with other males, Bronson becomes female in a spirit of sheer opposition, then lashes out to project his own internalized femaleness." (Vicari, 2014:144)

The purpose of the chosen film music in this scene is to counter-point the images on screen by externalizing Bronson’s femaleness. The violent spectacle of masculine power is essentially transformed into a choreographed dance to the rhythm of highly feminine electronic music.

'Drive' (2011)
'Drive' (2011)

2. Kavinsky - Nightcall

The soundtrack used in Drive performs a similar function of counter-pointing ideologies between music and image. The nameless protagonist, the Driver (Ryan Gosling), represents a different kind of hyper-masculinity to that of Bronson’s. Bronson’s dialogue dominates the film as he uses violence in his words and actions to become the center of attention. As the first line of dialogue states: “I always wanted to be famous.” The Driver, on the other hand, has extremely little dialogue in the film. He is a criminal loner who prefers to operate in the darkness of night-time Los Angeles. As little is heard vocally from the character, the film music operates to express emotions behind the ambiguity of this masculine character.

Tim Edwards argues that, "the driver barely speaks and, when he does, does with huge delays and pauses. Complementing this imagery is the similar inflected use of electro synth pop that dominates the score. This music is well known for its associations with the 1980s and its later development into gay-oriented euro disco. More significantly, it plays upon the human/electronic, expressive/repressive, and feminine/masculine ambiguities that dominate the character of the driver." (Edwards 2014: 45-46)

The binaries discussed here are represented in the opening title sequence of Drive. After an expositional scene that explains the criminal career of the protagonist, a montage is presented with images of the Driver driving around night-time Los Angeles. This sequence is presented within the similar aesthetic of a music video. Each transition within the montage is edited in parallel to the steady rhythm of the 1980s nostalgic synth-pop track Nightcall by Kavinsky.

Although the first image of an establishing shot of night-time Los Angeles depicts the soundtrack as non-diegetic, various interior close-ups of the Driver in his car can also depict the music as meta-diegetic. In other words, It can be conceived that the Driver is, in fact, listening to the music through his car stereo. Therefore linking the music more personally to his persona as it is essentially performed within an object that highly represents the masculine nature of his character. Very similar to the function of synth-pop used in Bronson, the music used in this sequence has a responsibility to externalize repressed feminine expression. Ryan Gosling’s performance in this sequence, and for the majority of the film, is extremely repressive. His character gives out very little recognizable emotion. He is predominantly ghost-faced. The music is used to counter-point this performance, as it is highly expressive both lyrically and sonically.

Car interior close-up
Car interior close-up

Nightcall’s lyrics also function as a foreshadow of the romance that the Driver entails later in the narrative. This musical dialogue begins with a verse of a rugged and distorted male vocal attempting to express his feelings. Which is then responded to by the chorus of a more melancholic female vocal that states, “there’s something inside you, it’s hard to explain”, essentially expressing the ambiguity of the Driver even further as well as exposing the film’s narrative.

3. Electric Youth ft The College - Real Hero

As well as counter-pointing the protagonist himself, the film music also contrasts the masculine object the Driver is fondly represented with; American muscle cars. In this film, the protagonist’s life is defined by the automobile. By day he is an auto-mechanic and a Hollywood stunt driver, and by night he is a criminal “get-a-way” driver for hire.

"For this movie, I wanted an electronic score because I felt it counterbalanced the masculinity of the car world. It had to be very feminine, almost antique, electronic sounds. So, I would listen to a lot of Kraftwerk, [and] Brian Eno… Then I Had Cliff Martinez emulate the sound of that kind of ‘Euro-pop’ that would again make the film counter its very masculine, American Mythology." (Refn: 2011)

One montage sequence transforms the Driver’s hyper-masculine craft into a passionate feminine expression. In this montage, the Driver takes his love interest Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her son Benicio (Kaden Leos) on a leisurely drive along the concrete banks of the Los Angeles River. A ‘techno ballad’, Real Hero, enhances this expressive scene.

The use of the film music in this sequence transgresses the symbolism of the car and consequently the image of the Driver. The masculine and American image of the Drivers vintage muscle car traveling at speed is reminiscent to the kind of driving action films produced in Hollywood cinema of the late 1960s, Bullet (1968) as a prime example. In conjunction, this image is counterbalanced with a soundtrack that is highly nostalgic towards 1980s Euro-Pop. The soundtrack essentially begins to influence the images by feminizing the hyper-masculine mythology of the American muscle car. With this music, the protagonist becomes to appear more as a ‘real human being, and a real hero’ rather than completely inexpressive. His performance becomes much more expressive within this sequence, as various interior shots within the car show him laughing along with Irene.

'Only God Forgives' (2013)
'Only God Forgives' (2013)

4. Cliff Martinez - Sister, Pt. 1

Since the production of Drive, composer Cliff Martinez has worked consistently with Refn. As noted earlier, electronic music has become such a vital part of Refn’s commercial oeuvre. A major factor of this artistic audio-visual style has come from Refn’s collaboration with Martinez. It appears that Martinez’s influence of creating the signature electronic film music associated with Refn’s recent popular body of films is in fact influenced by Refn’s images. Martinez explains that his process of composing is ‘largely intuitive. It just comes from watching the film and being inspired by it and trying to figure out what the music can do to contribute to it. [he] usually look at what’s weak about the film that the music might be able to improve.’

In contrast to the masculine subjects of Bronson and Drive, the electronic film music in Only God Forgives does not function as feminine counter-balance to the hyper-masculine images on screen. In this film, Martinez’s composed film score is used to parallel images on screen. film music performs closely to the actions and emotions of the protagonist Julian (Ryan Gosling). Homogenously similar to his preceding role as the Driver, Ryan Gosling once again delivers a ghost-faced performance as his character Julian is extremely emotionally repressive.

Ryan Gosling's idiosyncratic ambiguous performance style.
Ryan Gosling's idiosyncratic ambiguous performance style.

Julian is even sexually repressive to his partner/regular prostitute Mia (Rhanta Phongam). Instead of counterbalancing masculinity, the film music in Only God Forgives produces emotional tones to connote meaning on top of Julian’s repressive performance. For example, one scene utilizes a synthesized melody to portray Julian’s true loving desires for Mia. A sustained rhythm of synthesizer chords play over close-up shots of Julian and Mia’s faces and hands whilst Julian fantasizes about provocatively touching Mia.

Without the use of this specific film scoring, these images would have been conceived as vulgar instead of intimate. The image of hands becomes a regular motif in this film, but its most dominant representation has a prophetic quality for signifying the violence and power of Julian’s physical prowess. This particular use of film music subverts that dominant representation, as a much more caring side to protagonist is portrayed. However, this scene of fantasied desire is pulled back into reality as soon as the music is obstructed to the sound of laughter. As Julian spots the source of the laughter the music bridges into much more sinister synthesizer tones. This change in musical tone acts as commentary as it completely changes the mood from intimate romance to cynical violence. This tonal transition is in fact concluded, as Julian uses his hands for violence once again by assaulting the man who was laughing.

'The Neon Demon' (2016)
'The Neon Demon' (2016)

5. Cliff Martinez - Runway

Refn’s most contemporary feature to date, The Neon Demon, is no exception to the preceding electronic score driven audio-visual films within his oeuvre. Although film music obtains its usual role, there is a major change in the film’s narrative focus, as the central protagonist is an aspiring female teenage model in the form of Jesse (Elle Fanning). This is very contradictory to Refn's preceding criminally corrupted and viciously violent male protagonists. In this film, Refn explores the idea that beauty has become the greatest currency in western society. As a horror genre film, The Neon Demon exaggerates the desires and effects of aspiring to become the pinnacle image of beauty. Similar to Only God Forgives, the film music performs closely to the actions and emotions of the central protagonist. In one scene involving a surreal fashion runway, a synth score is used in parallel with the film’s imagery to depict Jessie’s beauty transitioning from modest innocence to corrupted narcissism.

The scene begins with Jessie centered amongst the darkness. A blue key light and occasional flashing white fill lights, representing the photographers viewing the runway show, make Jessie visible within this scene. Jessie’s performance is very withdrawn as she stares at herself within a triangle of mirrors. Her performance is similar to the repressive ghost-face of Ryan Gosling’s characters discussed earlier. Martinez’s score at this point is a dotted rhythm of ambient and subtle synth tones. The music essentially parallels the imagery to create an emotional tone that is distant. All aspects of film language at this point are modest and not creating extravagancy to draw attention. This is to highlight the innocence of Jessie, she merely wants to be a part of the fashion industry, not the center of it. This soon changes as there is a juxtaposing transition of the preceding film language. The transcending blue key light turns to a much more sinister red. Jessie’s performance becomes physical narcissistic as she kisses her own reflection many times. In cohesion to the transition in image, the score becomes much more obtrusive as the subtle synth tones become shrill as they are raised in volume, pitch, and rhythm. This extreme transition essentially portrays Jessie’s new egotistical persona, as she has been corrupted by the desire of fashion industry attempting to mold her into the next iconic image of beauty.

In conclusion, with each production Refn pushes film music from background ambiance to foregrounded narrative expression. Synthesizer dominated music especially has influenced visual aspects of Refn’s more critically acclaimed body of films as well as its clear influence on the soundtracks and scores themselves. Drive, Only God Forgives, and The Neon Demon are all filtrated with vibrant neon color palettes within the mise-en-scène that parallel the overt electronic nature of synthesized music. The music’s influence on Refn’s visuals can even be seen in the promotion of his films. Each of three films has posters that have a consistent colour scheme of vibrant neon blue and pink/red. Music as a main source of inspiration appears clear within the contemporary films of Nicholas Winding Refn. Even though Refn is supposedly colour blind, the colour palettes produced in his images are heavily influenced by synthesizer tones. Therefore his images are perfectly set up for the music he indulges in to become a part of his own autuer style.

© 2018 Andy Sciambarella

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