Soundtrack Review: Cliff Martinez’s Score for THE NEON DEMON

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SHOCK reviews the stirring soundtrack to Nicolas Winding Refn’s THE NEON DEMON.

Like Leone and Morricone, Hitchcock and Herrmann and De Palma and Donnagio, Danish auteur Nicolas Winding Refn’s relationship with composer Cliff Martinez has now evolved into an essential cinematic marriage.

In Refn’s DRIVE, Martinez’s moody synth and software pulses oozed LA at night; in ONLY GOD FORGIVES, the composer sculpted a minimalist wave of deep, horn-soaked electro-doom.

And now, for his original score for Refn’s latest fever dream THE NEON DEMON, Martinez has created his magnum opus, his aural masterpiece. A collection of cues that veer smoothly between lush landscapes of dreamy ambience and abstract swells of mind and ear-bending malevolence.

Refn’s riff on SUSPIRIA by way of THE STEPFORD WIVES and THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA tells the tale of an aspiring model, Jesse (Elle Fanning) who moves to Los Angeles to chase her dreams. Her youth and vitality are devoured by a group of beauty-obsessed women who will take any means necessary to possess what she has. Metaphorical vampirism is explored here and the music echoes that immersion into a parasitic, pretty and soul-destroying underworld.

The first strains of the soundtrack ‘s central theme mirrors the mood and analog sound of Vangelis’ iconic future-ambient-noir tones that make up the opening theme of the BLADE RUNNER soundtrack, with deep throbs running under higher synth washes and lovely, heavily reverb-treated tinkling sounds, like gently breaking glass floating in space. Two contributions from Refn’s son Julian Winding pop in next, a techno piece called “The Demon Dance” that is the after-hours, night-driving equivalent to Kavinsky’s “Night Call” from DRIVE and “Mine” by Winding’s band Sweet Tempest, the latter an industrial electro-metal cue that is designed to make you dance. Presumably (we haven’t seen the movie yet), characters in THE NEON DEMON do just that under the throbs on this track. There’s also a haunting ballad that closes the album (and is presumably the bid for a single) called “Waving Goodbye” performed by Sia.

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But the main attraction here are Martinez’s seductive sounds and, for almost 20 tracks (the CD is a single long playing disc and the vinyl is 2 platters; both will be released via Milan Records, the former on June 24th, the latter on July 8th), Martinez seamlessly blends new and old technology and musical sensibilities to disorienting, rapturous effect. Keith Emerson-styled pitch bends and analog squelches scream in organically over the meticulously designed base tracks; the effect is akin to the central themes of the film, of broken beauty and the masks some women wear, with the glossy optical perfection of LA simmering with barely controlled evil that threatens to erupt at any minute.

Each track connects to the other, creating a tapestry of unbearable tension that punctuates with organic, aural money-shots before settling back into a deep, lulling droning tone. The score is the logical extension of DRIVE’s California menace, but far less sunny an experience. Because THE NEON DEMON is a horror movie. And this is most assuredly a horror movie soundtrack.

You can hear Martinez’s influence, subtle quotes from previous, classic pictures. Outside of the aforementioned BLADE RUNNER influence, there are hints of John Williams’ work from JAWS in here (the gentle string strains during the quiet moments between Brody and his son, for example) as well as Tangerine Dream’s music from NEAR DARK and Herrmann’s jazz-influenced score for TAXI DRIVER. There are strains of Goblin and Fabio Frizzi in here too. And yet Martinez never steals. This is most assuredly his work, its nods to the masters just that, there for fans to either consciously or subconsciously pick-up on and appreciate.

For this writer, a great score can make or break a picture. In the case of THE NEON DEMON, if the movie has even half of the music’s dread, beauty, atmosphere, sensuality and terror promise, we’re in for a treat.