Pix pulsate with driving electronica

Eye on the Oscars 2011: Music Preview

In the riveting opening scene of “Drive,” Ryan Gosling’s character deftly pilots a getaway car through the dark streets of downtown Los Angeles, with a pulsating, ominous electronic beat behind him. The sounds are subtle yet highly effective in setting the tone of dread and longing for the neo-noir pic, along with a handful of unlikely ’80s synth-pop tunes that round out the soundtrack.

While a synthetic electronica score may seem an unusual choice for a cerebral action thriller, it plays a pivotal role in setting “Drive” apart from other heist-gone-awry films, and arguably helped it become one of this year’s critical darlings. This synthetic approach has recently been employed effectively in the scores to a number of critically acclaimed films including “The Social Network,” “Contagion” and “Hanna.”

Composer Cliff Martinez took up the charge of creating the minimalist electronic score for “Drive,” which created a viral review storm that propelled it into the iTunes Top 5 and landed it atop the Billboard soundtrack chart.

“Nic said he wanted an ambient score that didn’t put people to sleep,” Martinez says of director Nicolas Winding Refn’s vision for “Drive’s” music. “He wanted a light dramatic touch, nothing that would lead the audience too strongly. So my job was to be the counterweight — to emphasize the romantic aspect of the story rather than the sensationalist violence of it.”

Martinez, who this year also created the haunting, jittery electronic score for Steven Soderbergh’s “Contagion” and the more subdued electronica that permeates “The Lincoln Lawyer,” primarily used computers and keyboards to write the songs, as well as the rare instrument, the cristal baschet. Played with wet fingers, its vibrating glass cylinders produced the eerie, haunting sound that underlies much of the “Drive” score.

“His contribution to my film is enormous, equally as important as the main actors,” Refn says. “I don’t do drugs anymore, so music helps me find images in my brain of what I would like to see. I wanted an electronic score that would feel feminine and different from the masculinity of the stunt world and in the end it would all seem like a fairytale.”

Martinez, who was Red Hot Chili Peppers’ drummer in the early ’80s, used a similar approach to scoring “Contagion.” Before the film was completed, he received several cuts from Soderbergh, each with divergent temp scores that the director used as placeholders to indicate where Martinez’s music would go.

“The combination of three (elements) created something that was distinctive,” says Martinez, who first worked with the director on 1989’s “Sex, Lies, and Videotape.” “The retro synth idea of Tangerine Dream, the dissonant and ugly horror movie music of ‘The French Connection,’ and the idea that everything had to be rhythmic and energetic to propel the movie along. Those were the big influences on the ‘Contagion’ score.”

Earlier this year, the Chemical Brothers put their own technological spin on the score to the artful action thriller “Hanna.” While Martinez’s score subtly filled in “Drive’s” quieter moments, the Chemical Brothers’ energetic electronic music propelled “Hanna’s” action sequences, punctuating chase and fight scenes, and served as the theme for the teenage protag (Saoirse Ronan), who has been trained by her father (Eric Bana) to be a vengeful killer. It was the duo’s first film score, and they took cues from director and longtime-friend Joe Wright.

“In the film there’s this idea of fairy tale and magical reality, and the sound was crucial to the whole film,” says Tom Rowlands, one half of the Chemical Brothers. “The idea is that the lead character, Hanna, hasn’t experienced these sounds before. I loved the way the first section of the film is quiet with the sounds of nature, and then you get the intrusion of this synthetic world. We heightened these ideas, treating natural sounds in an electronic way.”

Rowlands and Martinez are quick to point out that electronic scores have been around for decades, citing Tangerine Dream’s ’70s soundtracks and Vangelis’ acclaimed “Blade Runner” and “Chariots of Fire” scores in the early ’80s.

“The idea of electronic scores was very big then … but they did go away a bit,” says Rowlands. “There’s an interesting meeting point in music now between electronic and acoustic worlds that once people viewed separately. These scores are electronic, but they’re not cold … there’s a very human element in electronic music now that people are connecting to.”

This is also evident in Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ scores to David Fincher’s “The Social Network,” which won last year’s Academy Award for original score, and their latest effort, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” slated to be released in late December. While the “Network” score relied heavily on acoustic piano melodies with electronic undertones and Reznor’s distinctive industrial flourishes reminiscent of his band Nine Inch Nails, the duo seems to be taking a different approach to “Dragon Tattoo,” using live strings as well as technology to create ambient bleeps and synthetic growls that give it an ominous, foreboding tone with very human undertones.

Reznor’s grungy, synthetic reworking of Led Zeppelin’s “The Immigrant Song,” featuring vocals by Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, was used in an early teaser trailer for “Tattoo,” and has been the talk of several Internet message beards.

“We started recording things in a different way that was all based on performance, nothing programmed,” Reznor told the New York Times. “And that would be my limited skills at stringed instruments, and trying passages that we would get that and then we would process them in a way that would give us a real organic, layered feel that felt like something we’d never done before.”

Eye on the Oscars 2011: Music Preview:

Silence is golden for ‘Artist’s’ maestro | Jonsi’s music animates Crowe’s ‘Zoo’ | From the Bard to Bean without missing a beat | Shoring up ‘Hugo’s’ ode to Melies | Spielberg and Williams duet for 25th time | Desplat’s impossible pace propelled into higher gear | Pix pulsate with driving electronica