Critics have been wildly divided by Jonathan Glazer’s oblique sci-fi meditation, “Under the Skin,” in which Scarlett Johansson plays an extraterrestrial predator who eventually becomes the prey as human emotions start to cloud her unearthly resolve. Uniform praise, however, has been heaped upon Mica Levi’s unsettling, atmospheric score.
“An extraordinary score,” hailed the New Yorker’s Anthony Lane. “Glazer attempts to let us see the human world through the eyes of a non-human, evocatively reflected in Mica Levi’s score,” wrote Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers. “Levi’s eerie soundtrack drifts in and out, furthering a sense of discombobulation associated with her cryptic point of view,” stated Indiewire’s Eric Kohn.
Some reviewers have gone so far as to place Levi and d.p. Daniel Landin on equal footing with the director. And Glazer himself likens Levi’s contribution to another character in the movie.
He met Levi, a classically trained musician whose creative proclivities lean toward the avant garde, to put it mildly, through his music producer Peter Raeburn, who worked with Glazer on his previous two features, “Sexy Beast” and “Birth.”
“After about eight bars of what (Raeburn) played me I knew she was the right voice for the film,” explains Glazer. “And it was a voice. It wasn’t like trying to find someone who could lay something on top of the film; it was a voice that the film needed and Mica’s was it. It’s fundamental to the quality of the film.”
Curiously, Levi didn’t know Glazer’s feature work prior, although she was familar with his commercials without even knowing who was behind them. “When I was going to go into the meeting I checked out ‘Sexy Beast,’” says Levi, who’d never scored a film before. “Growing up and watching the tele, I’d seen loads of his stuff. Like, ‘Gee, he did that?’ The Guinness ad with the surfers, for example; that made a real impression on me when I was a kid.” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zff9hVH3ptY).
For his part, Glazer had some familiarity with Levi’s capabilities via a live recording of “Chopped and Screwed” that she and her group, Micachu & the Shapes, performed with the London Sinfonietta, which she calls “a distorted, psychedelic sort of thing.”
Like that work, the “Under the Skin” score is a rather stripped-down affair that gets maximum impact from the sparse intrumentation: mostly viola-heavy strings — both acoustic and synthesized — with some percussion and breathy flute.
“What you can get with the synthesized strings is it goes on forever,” explains the 26-year-old musician, “whereas a human can’t (achieve that effect)…there’s human error. But with this you get this foreverness feeling.”
Levi, who hails from Guildford, the county town of Surrey, England, adds to the distortion by alternately speeding up and slowing down the tempo, contributing to what Stephanie Zacharek in the Village Voice called “a work of quiet audaciousness, half-soothing, half-jolting.”
The score, which starts out like a swarm of angry bees on steroids, becomes warmer, more compassionate — even melodic — as Johansson’s character starts to see the world through human eyes, even if it’s not staring back with the same kind of growing empathy.
“There’s drums at the beginning, which is when she’s hunting,” says Levi. “The speed is slow, but the fact that it’s been slowed down creates a distorted, kind of perverted version (of that sound).”
Sometimes using hidden cameras, and avoiding the kind of back-story and overly discursive context that most movie audiences are used to, the story is told almost entirely from the alien’s point of view. “Part of the process was that it wasn’t full of answers,” says Levi. “A situation was set up and then we would see what happens. And I suppose that mindset was part of the whole filmmaking process.
“The way I was directed by John was to try to concentrate on what (the Johansson character) is feeling,” she adds, “to transition from her initial purpose of being there and where she ends up. All of it was being led by her character. The best way to do that was to try to be accurate in real time. And then the language of the music ended up being quite thematic to try to illustrate this change.”