Neon Violence : The Music of Nicolas Winding Refn’s ‘Drive’

So I was invited to take part in a post series on film soundtracks by the incredibly awesome Bruce over at Vinyl Connection. I love soundtracks and blog posts and talking about them in great detail so I said absolutely. My first post is one of my favorite soundtracks, Drive by Cliff Martinez. Read and enjoy, and head over to the Vinyl Connection site and check out some other great posts about soundtracks. You might find one you like. Or maybe one you’ve never heard. Or just read. Reading is good for the soul. 


If there was a point in my life where the soundtrack to a film really made an impression on me, I suppose it would’ve been in 1980. I’d seen Star Wars in the theater when I was 4 or 5 years old, but it wasn’t John Williams’ score that made the biggest impression on me then: it was Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia. With her cinnamon bun hair, plucky attitude, and that kiss she planted on her savior Luke Skywalker before they swung to safety in the Death Star, I was a smitten little boy. Of course, just a year or so later Princess Leia was partying with the cast of Saturday Night Live, snorting coke like a Hoover, and generally burning out, but I’ll always feel that Leia was my key into loving George Lucas’ space opera. But in 1980 The Empire Strikes Back was released.  I was a few years older and full-on a Star Wars nerd. I’d gotten my first action hero(Luke Skywalker, natch), and was just a few months away from a Christmas haul that would include the Snowspeeder, Millenium Falcon, AND the X-Wing fighter. I was old enough to be geeking out over the release of what is easily the best Star Wars film made, and as soon as “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away” donned the movie screen I felt the tingles run through my whole 6 year old body. Then, Williams’ score burst through the theater speakers like Gabriel’s trumpet and I was gone. I was in that movie with those characters. A witness to the rebel struggles against the Empire. That John Williams score was the unique element needed to transport me heart and soul into that movie. Williams was that integral piece in most movies he composed scores for, at least for me. E.T., Superman, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Close Encounters of the Third Kind; those were all transformative pieces of musical art. I can’t think of those films without humming their main themes. A transcendent film score can push a so-so film into heights it otherwise didn’t deserve.

Odd as this may seem, this piece isn’t about John Williams. It’s about Cliff Martinez’ score for Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive. While I knew the importance of a great film soundtrack, I was never one to seek out and own those scores. Sure, I owned Ry Cooder’s Paris, Texas S/T because it was just that damn good, and a handful of others like The Crow, Pump Up The Volume, and even Martinez’ own Kafka S/T, but I didn’t start to seek out scores until Drive. There was something about that movie that locked into this nostalgic vein with me. It was sleek, stylish, and put me in mind of Michael Mann’s Manhunter. It was quiet menace. It was tension under the surface that you were waiting to erupt at any moment. In that same spirit there were elements of John Carpenter as well in the film. Ryan Gosling’s “Driver” character was this almost mute anti-hero. A high plains drifter that traded a horse for horsepower; a cigar for a toothpick and a six-shooter for a hammer and fists. What the film may have lacked in story or explanation it made up in noir-ish mystery and cold, steely looks. It was also bloody violent. In that regard Drive had a David Lynch-ian way of handling violent scenes in that it didn’t tip toe around it. Refn made the violence a character itself. It was over the top and gratuitous, but it never felt out of place in this dream-like, neon-lit Los Angeles. Wild At Heart’s world of kooky characters and blasts of hallucinogenic violence seemed channeled in Nicolas Winding Refn’s cinematic world.

dsc04942Cliff Martinez helped to define the film as well with his electronic score. He gave as much to this film as did cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel. He kept things minimal and visceral. It’s almost a dark ambient vibe Martinez’ vintage synths are creating with the feel of late-70s work by Tangerine Dream. There’s also a feeling of repetition in a piece like “Rubber Head” that brings Steve Reich to mind. It’s hypnotic and hazy. The songs by Kavinsky, Desire, College(featuring Electric Youth), and Chromatics used on the soundtrack add to the 80s mystique of the film, but Martinez seems to be channeling darker sounds with his instrumental pieces. He was creating music for stalking the streets of LA at night. A lonely, dangerous predator slinking through city streets in a souped up hot rod, eyes always ahead looking for that moment when things go to Hell in a hand basket. Each of his pieces on the soundtrack are named after what’s happening in the film. “Rubber Head”, “I Drive”, “They Broke His Pelvis”, and “Hammer” are very self-explanatory titles. If you’ve seen the film(several times if you’re like me) then you’ll know what each of those titles are describing. Martinez has done this with all three films he’s scored for Refn. They seem a good fit for each other, Refn and Martinez. They’re true auteurs in their respective worlds.

dsc04943For a film like Drive, the score doesn’t need to be bombastic and over-the-top. In a lot of ways I think that would have been a detriment to the film as a whole. It’s a quiet film for the most part. That is, until it isn’t. Subtlety, restraint, and atmosphere are the name of the game with Cliff Martinez’ Drive S/T. They are what make it such a powerful piece of film scoring. They underscore the turmoil, the tension, and the violence that lays waiting just under the surface.

There’s plenty of amazing scores to pine over and waste a thousand or so words on, I know. But Cliff Martinez made one that turned me onto a whole new world of sounds and opportunities to blow my money on. He tapped into a way to communicate musically that seems to have a main line directly into my brain. I just instantly connect to this album(and this film.) There’s a supernatural element to both the movie and the music that speaks to my pondering mind. Open your head and let it speak to yours as well.



10 thoughts on “Neon Violence : The Music of Nicolas Winding Refn’s ‘Drive’

  1. Incredible film. Incredible soundtrack. With you all the way on this one… (and yeah, Empire Strikes Back is easily the best Star Wars flick).

    I think I may have said this before, but Drive would work perfectly as a silent movie. The way those old Buster Keaton flicks worked with the piano soundtrack. Only there wouldn’t be Buster Keaton. Or piano. Just hazy neon vibes and the gentle stone face of Ryan Gosling.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I never saw this film (guess I oughta!) but your superb description of the score sells me completely on the music. Already added to the To Get list… thanks!

    Also, great psyche-out. I thought this was a Star Wars review for a while there…!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You must see this film. It’s a classic for sure, as is the score.

      Maybe I should do a write up of John Williams. I probably could’ve kept going with that first paragraph.


  3. Terrific piece. I enjoy a good long intro when I’m being nudged towards something.
    The Chris Martinez music sounds great. Often I resent songs interrupting an instrumental s/t. So how does the whole album work with the combo of songs and electronics?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Much appreciated. The songs work seamlessly with the instrumental pieces. They all fall into that electronic vibe, and those actual songs sit perfectly in the film itself. They definitely help to solidify this soundtrack’s greatness in my opinion.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I think I probably enjoyed the film more than you did, but I’d have to say I prefer to leave this particular story in the realm of audio and visual. For me, the look and sound of this one is what’s so appealing.

      As far as STs that are better than their films, I think that could be a genre all its own. I have quite a few that belong in that category.

      Liked by 1 person

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