How ‘The Hitman’s Bodyguard’ Mined the Blues and F-Bombs for a Banging Soundtrack

The bluesy soundtrack to “The Hitman’s Bodyguard” is one of the winning elements of the Lionsgate release, which has been No. 1 at the box office since Aug. 18, and is teed-up for its third weekend at the top. “‘Hitman’ will take full advantage of a very slow marketplace over Labor Day weekend and is likely to go three for three,” says comScore senior analyst Paul Dergarabedian. The buddy action comedy, which stars Samuel L. Jackson and Ryan Reynolds, features a score by Icelandic composer Atli Övarsson that taps into the soulful songs selected for the soundtrack by director Patrick Hughes.

Growing up in Melbourne, Hughes sang and played harmonica in a band, and ‘Hitman’ cuts like Willie Dixon’s “Sittin’ and Cryin’ the Blues,” Leadbelly’s “Black Betty” and Chuck Berry’s “Little Queenie” are nods to those formative years. “There’s an Australian band called Spiderbait and I always loved their cover of ‘Black Betty,’” says Hughes, who needle-drops it for a speedboat chase through the waterways of Amsterdam.  “It’s an eclectic mix. We even have a busload of singing nuns,” Hughes adds, referring to an interlude of lyrical levity that sees Jackson lead a sisterly sing-along to “The Italian Drinking Song” (an actual ditty, published by Warner/Chappell).

“We were playing a lot of the tracks on set. The Chuck Berry tune was used over a fight sequence. I liked the playful nature of it, which turned it from just a badass fight into a bit of a dance.” More melodic irony occurs during a flashback to when Jackson’s character, Kincaid, meets the love of his life, played by Salma Hayek. Glimpsed in a bar, she takes down a gang of bikers as Lionel Richie croons “Hello.” “If Sam was going to fall in love with Selma in a bar, I wanted it to play out in slow motion against a really great ‘80s love ballad,” Hughes explains.

The combination of Hughes’ classic song selections and Övarsson’s soulful score provides “depth and emotional direction” for the story and characters that is rare in action movies, says Millennium Films music supervisor Selena Arizanovic.

Perhaps the most inspired musical moment is voiced by Jackson himself. The actor improvised a few lines in a scene in which he’s riding shotgun with Reynolds and trying to annoy him. “When I got into the editing room  I thought it was genuinely good. So one day when we were doing pickup shots I pitched Sam the idea of turning it into a legitimate song. He went into his trailer and 15 minutes later came out with an entire lyric sheet for ‘Nobody Gets Out Alive.’

Övarsson produced the track, recording the music in Iceland, and adding a gospel choir that performed at Abbey Road Studios in London with Jackson adding his vocal at a studio in New York. “It’s very much a traditional band score – drums, bass, guitarists and keyboards. I used quite a bit of the Hammond B3 organ, which I played myself, and we had a brass section.”

In deciding to draft a gospel choir, Hughes had some very specific direction. “I wanted them dropping F-bombs,” he says with a laugh. “We gave them a little wine to loosen them up, and they seemed to be enjoying themselves.” The guiding principle for the score was “it had to sound be organic and hand-made, because that’s the quality of some of those great blues tracks that Patrick chose,” Övarsson says. “I wanted this music to be alive, and performed live, sounding like it was played by humans. There is very little computer music on this score.”

The Hitman's Bodyguard soundtrack

Övarsson in fact grew up on ‘80s synth music, a devotee of British musician and producer Trevor Horn. So he was delighted to be taken under the wing of composer Hans Zimmer, one of Horn’s former bandmates,  when he came to Hollywood after graduating from Berklee and the North Carolina School of Arts. Övarsson, who is represented by Gorfaine/Schwartz, still keeps studio space at Zimmer’s Remote Control, though he’s been on his own since 2007. “Hans is an amazing collaborator, and I feel fortunate to have had him as a producer on some of my work.”

“The Hitman’s Bodyguard” closes with a romantic denouement set to King Harvest’s “Dancing in the Moonlight,” which becomes part of the end credits, segueing into Jackson’s extended version of “Nobody Gets Out Alive” (which got the actor into ASCAP).

As for the opening credits, they play to Övarsson’s “Hitman’s Bodyguard Theme,” in the tradition of John Barry’s Bondthemes and John Powell’s Bourne stylings. “I think almost anybody who does a score in this vein is in some way influenced by John Barry, especially using the electric guitar in such an iconic way,” Övarsson says. “The last film I’d done before this was a Danish film [the boxing biopic Den bedste mand], that was also jazz-blues influenced as well, and a lot of those pieces caught Patrick’s ear. This was a continuation of the exploration of jazz and blues and those genres in the context of film music.”

“The Hitman’s Bodyguard” soundtrack is available digitally. Milan Records will issue a vinyl version on Nov. 11.

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