×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

‘Sicario’s’ Ominous Score Aims to Match Film’s Brutality

Last year, Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson earned an Oscar nomination for his lush, classically inspired music for the Stephen Hawking biopic, “The Theory of Everything” — a precise, lyrical score driven by strings and piano, and accented by harp, woodwinds and the fairy-tale chimes of a music box. It is by turns as delicate as a glass figurine and as rich as a Renaissance tapestry.

But with “Sicario,” Denis Villeneuve’s drug cartel thriller that opens Sept. 18 in limited release, Johannsson goes in the opposite direction, aiming more for sound design than melody. It’s an ominous, percussive work that reflects the grisly reality of its subject matter, which involves a rogue U.S. government task force intent on disrupting the Mexican drug trade with its own brand of shock and awe.

At times the soundtrack can have the effect of a pulse rate gone mad, or, as Johannsson puts it, “like the throbbing heart of a beast charging at you.” And save for a few reflective, even mellifluous passages, the score rarely lets up.

“It has this kind of brooding brutality to it,” explains the composer, speaking by phone from Berlin, where he’s lived for the past three years. “Denis and I wanted the music to be like violence almost, to have this intense, insistent, relentless quality.”

Johannsson used a 65-piece orchestra with an emphasis on drums (mostly tom-toms and military snare drums, but with the snare turned off), strings and an unusually large (for the composer) brass section — all on the low end of the register. “This idea of working with low percussion and low strings and low brass was intended to create a sound coming from below,” Johannsson says. “It’s almost the sound of the drug tunnels that are featured in the story.”

In the liner notes for the soundtrack, Villeneuve states that he wanted Johannsson’s score to feel like “a threat, coming from under your feet, deep under the surface of the scorched earth of the Chihuahua desert.”

A good portion of the music is distorted, such as one scene where the sound of whirring helicopter blades builds to a crackling crescendo using heavily processed percussion. That violent pounding becomes a recurring motif in the film.

But not all of the movie’s music is unsettling. Two tracks on the soundtrack — “Melancholia,” featuring soloist Skuli Sverrisson on six-string bass, and “Desert Music,” a showcase for cellist Hildur Gudnadottir — allow for the kind of quiet, if rueful, beauty one has come to expect from Johannsson.

Although “Melancholia” vaguely evokes  a Spanish guitar motif, Johannsson steered clear of a regional or traditionally Mexican sound. “I don’t like to have very literal or obvious references to places or ethnicity,” he says. “But if you do that in a subtle way, it can work on a very subliminal level.”

Sicario” is the composer’s second collaboration with Villenueve after “Prisoners,” and Johannsson, very much a product of Reykjavik’s avant-garde tradition in terms of his solo work for the concert stage, has already begun sketching out themes for Villenueve’s latest feature, “Story of Your Life,” which just finished principal photography.

Johannsson is also working with fellow rising Icelander Baltasar Kormakur (“Everest”) on a series called “Trapped,” a detective story shot in their home country, set in an isolated fjord plagued by a relentless snowstorm.

Another soundscape may be in the offing.

More Artisans

  • Spider-Man Homecoming

    Film and TV Productions Are Using Drones for Scouting Locations, Lighting and More

    Since a ruling by the Federal Aviation Administration in 2014 that cleared the use of drones in film and TV production, the acquisition of footage by these unmanned flying machines has become de rigueur for aerial shooting in cases when cranes or aircraft are impractical or unsafe.  As such, drones have been greeted enthusiastically not [...]

  • MTV The Challenge

    How 'The Challenge' Relied on Global Crew to Pull Off Plane Game

    Thirty-three seasons into MTV’s “The Challenge,” the reality competition series has spawned a band of traveling producers and engineers who fly around the world to create one-of-a-kind games. This includes placing cameras, smoke elements and a puzzle inside a plane that was suspended more than 30 feet above water. Executive producer Justin Booth joined “The [...]

  • Chaz Ebert DePaul CHA Documentary Filmmaking

    Chicago Program Gives High School Girls Lessons in Documentary Filmmaking

    At the upcoming Cannes Film Festival, three of the projects screening in the Short Film Corner — “Birthday,” “Phenomenally Me” and “Without Dying” — will be products of the DePaul/CHA Documentary Filmmaking Program, a six-week course co-sponsored by the Chicago Housing Authority in which high school girls learn filmmaking from graduate students and faculty of [...]

  • Steven Spielberg55th Annual CAS Awards, Inside,

    Cinema Audio Society Sets 2020 Awards Show Three Weeks Earlier

    The Cinema Audio Society has moved its 2020 awards show ahead by three weeks to Jan. 25 due to the compression of the season. It will be held at the Intercontinental Los Angeles Downtown. The CAS Awards recognize sound mixing in film and television, outstanding products for production and post-production, as well as the recipient [...]

  • Rocketman Elton John Biopic

    'Rocketman' Production Team Took the Fantasy Route With the Elton John Biopic

    Paramount has high hopes for “Rocketman,” the Elton John biopic starring Taron Egerton as the legendary performer. Premiering at the Cannes Film Festival on May 16, the film comes on the heels of Fox’s massively successful Freddie Mercury movie “Bohemian Rhapsody” and could capitalize on audiences’ newly discovered interest in rock star stories that transport [...]

  • Burbank-based Barnstorm VFX Studio Expands to

    Barnstorm VFX, Creator of Visuals for Amazon’s ‘The Man in the High Castle’ and Other Shows, Expands to Vancouver

    Barnstorm VFX, the company behind the visual effects on Amazon Studios’ “The Man in the High Castle” (pictured above), “HBO’s Silicon Valley” and CBS’ “Strange Angel,” has opened a new facility in Vancouver, British Columbia. The move positions the boutique digital effects, design and production shop to take advantage of expanding work north of the [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content