The Greatest Music Cue of All Time

Nicolas Winding Refn explains how he uses music in his films—and names his favorite song choice in cinematic history.

Once Upon a Time in the West.
Once Upon a Time in the West

Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Driving down country roads on a summer night in 2011, I arrived at the local movie theater in Woodstock, Ill., the onetime home of Dick Tracy cartoonist Chester Gould and the town that doubled for Punxsutawney, Pa., in Groundhog Day. To my surprise the local theater was screening Drive, a film of interest both for its tailwinds following a coup at the Cannes Film Festival—Danish provocateur Nicolas Winding Ref received the Best Director Award, a first for his home country—but also because Refn and his star Ryan Gosling, who claim to share a telekinetic connection, were in lock step referring to their neon noir as a “violent John Hughes movie,” whether in press-junket interviews or from an armchair on The Tonight Show. My father was John Hughes, and it was striking to read of his association with what I anticipated to be a conventional chase movie. By the time the cursive-pink credits seared across the Los Angeles skyline over Kavinsky’s “Nightcall,” with its vocoder vocals growling as if from the depths of the sewer grates below—I’d spent years editing a book on the history of the vocoder, so my ears perked—I had that rare experience of feeling like a movie, even one about cars, was customized for me.

The pop songs in Drive stuck with me for days, weeks, months. Cliff Martinez’s original score was just as haunting, its rolling waves of synths and Cristal Baschet saturating what one patient in Oliver Sacks’ book Hallucinations refers to as his “intracranial jukebox.” Refn’s work is often noted for its hallucinatory qualities, and music is generally the culprit. After Drive I cruised Refn’s catalog, seeking out such infectious cues as the Glass Candy track that electrifies his 2008 prison epic Bronson.

“I never did drugs, so music was always the means of inspiration to get that heightened emotional feel of indulging within yourself,” Refn told me earlier this week during a conversation at the Bowery Hotel in New York. “I’ve begun making films that are very much about silence, so the music is very dominating.”

Some of my more powerful childhood memories were of witnessing my father pore over his record collection in his home office, doing endless needle drops on his turntable or speeding through mixtapes and CDs to find a song that matched the mood of a scene spinning on a loop in the VCR. These temp tracks—songs suggested in the script or placeholders that filled silences in rough cuts—often had a way of making the final cut, and ever since I’ve been drawn to filmmakers who have a special touch for appropriating existing music into their films, be it the hymnal quality of Terrence Malick’s selections, the feverish energy William Friedkin could inject into an already-insane scene (look no further than the use of the Mutiny track “Lump” in Cruising) or the game-changing musical pathways presented by Stanley Kubrick a generation earlier. That Refn was able to travel down these same lanes with a pop sensibility was an especially potent combination.

After connecting with Refn, I spoke to Cliff Martinez by phone from Los Angeles to get a composer’s perspective on the art of appropriation. “The thing that’s interesting about carving your film around an existing song is you can really do some unexpected things,” he said. “From a composer’s point of view, sometimes I think it’s cheating. I think you take somebody else’s great work of art—for example, you could take ‘In My Life’ by the Beatles and put it over an image of a steaming pile of manure and it would probably still bring a tear to your eye. There’s a shortcut aspect to the whole appropriation of other people’s music, especially when you have the budget to get classic songs. I like original music, but then, that’s my job.”

Whereas the pop songs in Drive—which, it should be noted, Martinez was an enthusiastic supporter of—had already been integrated into the cut before he was brought on as composer, his collaboration with Refn on their latest film, Only God Forgives, was more bottom-up. During production Martinez relocated to Thailand, where the revenge fantasy starring an increasingly laconic Gosling is set, for several weeks to compose round-the-clock in his hotel suite, carefully fleshing out Refn’s silences.

For 90 occasionally challenging minutes, the characters in Only God Forgives slither through pools of neon that have been painstakingly isolated across the frame. Within those stylish hits of color, faces are broken, stomachs are butterflied, innocent bystanders are mowed down, and my violence threshold was crossed. Martinez’s score serves as a life preserver at times—something to hold on to when the waters run red. The cue at the climax of the film, “Wanna Fight,” is a standout, a hypnotic piece of score quickly filed into the intracranial jukebox. The challenge of achieving this kind of trance, Martinez explained, “is to maintain that simplicity and also make it engaging. ‘Wanna Fight’ started from a simple, repeating, relentless motif. I wanted it to hold your attention, but stay primitive and numbskull-stark.”

My conversation with Refn was anything but stark, especially when music was at the forefront.

What were some of your earliest musical influences?

Music has always been part of my upbringing. My mother was a huge jazz and Motown fan, so I was exposed to that at an early age. She was a still photographer in Copenhagen. The ’60s was a time when a lot of American jazz musicians were coming to Scandinavia and performing, and she photographed just about every one of them.

Her photographs are very different; she refused to take any pictures of musicians onstage. They’re all before or after, never onstage. That was when they were in their armor. I remember she told me the first time she photographed Miles Davis, he didn’t want her in the room. So she photographed him through the crack of the door. It’s very intimate; she captured the man in a moment he wasn’t aware of.

Of course, when you’re rebelling against your parents, you have to find your own niche, and I always very much liked what I would call more aggressive music, especially when I was younger. At the same time, I loved the New Romantic sound. That was my teenage years. I now go back and listen to a lot of those bands again. A few weeks ago, I was sitting at LAX and I wondered what happened to Book of Love. I went onto iTunes and downloaded every Book of Love album again, and they were great.

What is your process for finding the right music cues in your films?

I have this process that I really used a lot on Bronson; that was the first movie I envisioned as if it was a piece of music, and what would it be. I came up with the concept that it must be the Pet Shop Boys. It would describe the Bronson character, the sexuality. There was a sense of camp with the Pet Shop Boys and yet a very heightened, club-beat pop element at the same time. Very well-conceived lyrics and melodies that essentially [represented what] the Bronson character was. So I would listen to the Pet Shop Boys constantly in prep, and even during the movie, and went so far as to meet with Neil Tennant and see if they’d be interested in scoring the film. They declined, kindly, because they were on other paths—this is when there was still money in the music industry—but they were very helpful when it came time to obtain a song of theirs.

And then on Drive, the initial idea of the car and a man, Kraftwerk became very dominating, and the sounds of electronic synths. What’s interesting about Kraftwerk is it’s like classical music, and at the same time it’s extremely modern. There was a retro sense to it, yet a futuristic sensibility. That was the dominating force.

Do you remember one Kraftwerk song in particular that connected with you?

Radioactivity.” And some songs on earlier records, way back to Autobahn. Basically I searched for a beat that repeated itself like a car engine or a heartbeat, something that just moves and moves and moves. At the script stage of Drive, the only music I put in was “Oh My Love” by Riz Ortolani from a movie called Goodbye Uncle Tom. Ortolani came at the same time as Ennio Morricone. They came out of traditional, fluffy Italian pop music. Very romantic, very melodic. But because that song needed to infuse the movie with its emotion and sense of heightened reality, that was the dominating song I wanted to incorporate. But I didn’t want to do a retro movie, either. That’s so easy nowadays, because our turnaround is so quick. So I thought of John Hughes. My thinking was, “Well, if this is Sixteen Candles for me, we need to get some Sixteen Candles music into this.” [My editor] Mat Newman was coming in from Germany to Los Angeles. I told him we needed electronic music. He had discovered Kavinsky and played me “Nightcall.” I thought it was great—it was in the movie. The Chromatics came next. Mat also found “A Real Hero” by College, that kind of aesthetic pop sound, and that became the song that was going to define the movie for me.

What’s your reaction to car companies appropriating those songs for commercials?

Well, I guess it’s great for the royalties that go to those various individuals, that’s terrific.

You don’t feel territorial in any way?

No, that would be silly for me to do that. Once those songs were definite, when I hired Cliff Martinez very late in the game to compose the score, I asked what he thought of the pop songs, because I was getting a lot of pushback from various financial people who felt it wasn’t what young people wanted to listen to. They were trying to push me in a direction that was so wrong, all I could say was, “How about no?”

Do you remember what replacements were suggested?

More of a conventional R&B sound, or a more conventional classic rock sound that is usually affiliated with automobiles, which would be fine choices but not the right choices. So I insisted on these specific songs. When I showed Cliff the movie and asked him how he felt, considering they’d be played from start to end, he said he loved them and could add to that. In only three weeks he created the score for the film with the thought that the mood would come from these songs.

When my wife saw Drive and the College song was playing during the dissolve from the LA River to Ryan Gosling carrying the boy down the hallway, she started to cry.

That’s what music can do. There’s an interesting theory that we have this parameter, this force field in our system that we can activate with notes that basically force us to automatically cry. You see when music is played for people that have emotional difficulties, it affects them much stronger sometimes. It’s polarizing. That’s what music can do. With the right image, it penetrates you faster than a speeding bullet. It’s very powerful.

If I were to put in the DVD of Drive, I would go to certain moments to get that musical fix. For instance, during the welcome-home party, the intercutting between the two leads and their longing for one another, I’d watch to get that fix from the music that binds the scene. Does that bother in you any way, that I would skip the story and go for that?

No, not at all. I can’t tell you how many times I go to specific pieces of a Morricone score, or a Bernard Herrmann score.

What are some of your favorite music cues in cinema?

The greatest music cue of all time, in my opinion, is “Man With a Harmonica” from Once Upon a Time in the West. I would actually say, more than in terms of a score combined with visuals that was composed to the film, Once Upon a Time in the West probably stands out as the quintessential masterpiece. Also because its use of instrument is infused within the story. It’s especially powerful in two places: the arrival of Claudia Cardinale and we reveal the city beyond the train station, and the [arrival of] the Man With a Harmonica. Those two cues for me, I mean, you can’t … [Pauses] That, to me, is filmmaking. There are others, of course. The Mission being one.

How about cues with a pre-existing song that have elicited that same kind of heightened response.

It’s not a pop song, but ever since I heard “Homicide” by 999 in my late teens, that’s the one song I’ve tried to get in every movie I’ve made since, and I still haven’t been able to come up with the right scenario.

I remember in high school watching one scene over and over again in the Australian movie Flirting. There’s a school dance where the boys are lined up on one side of the room and the girls parade in to the song “With a Girl Like You” by the Troggs. It’s a perfectly edited sequence, with these powerful dolly shots that capture the two sexes sizing up one another. And the music carries it.

Well, now that we’re on that note, Jon Cryer’s lip-synching to Otis Redding in Pretty in Pink? Wow. That was a mind-blowing experience. And of course “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” in Mean Streets. I was 8 years old when I saw Mean Streets and I remember that cut of Robert De Niro entering the bar in slow motion cued to “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” That’s always been one of Scorsese’s great strengths, the use of those cues. Probably everything we’re talking about leads to one movie, which is Scorpio Rising by Kenneth Anger, the first film to use pop music of the day not just for emotions and impulses but for subliminal messages. Everything leads back to that film. I watched that time and time again for inspiration, for how it uses its cues.

Of course, another great music cue is Easy Rider. Starting from the silent sequence at the airport with the planes taking off and then cutting to that Steppenwolf riff, it gets everybody going.

As a kid I would sometimes watch movies just for the music, like Death in Venice for the Mahler pieces.* I have a huge collection of soundtrack vinyl; a lot of it is Italian vinyl. My mother had the Once Upon a Time in the West soundtrack; I still have that issue. The first soundtrack I ever purchased myself was A Clockwork Orange. A fucking great soundtrack.

I guess because nowadays so many films use music at such a rapid speed, you don’t even get to listen to it. The ’80s still had that spirit of playing the whole song. Now it’s so much about speed, they have to consume so much, it just becomes noise in the background. It has no meaning.

A friend and I were lamenting the decline of the main-title anthem, especially for comedies. Even a film like Beverly Hills Cop opening with “The Heat Is On”— the saxophone may sound dated, but it at least sent a clear signal that the show was starting.

Or Miami Vice. I mean, that was the cue! Or the Tangerine Dream soundtrack for The Keep.

William Friedkin has said his process on Sorcerer was to not show a script to Tangerine Dream, but to let them compose based on the feeling of the scene as he described it to them, and he then cut around their compositions. One sequence in particular, where the drivers assemble and fine-tune their trucks for the journey—if that doesn’t get you hyped, I don’t know what will.

It’s strange because if you look at the catalog of the members of Tangerine Dream, the amount of material, it’s staggering. It’s mind-blowing. I really like Bernard Herrmann’s score for The Day the Earth Stood Still, which was the main inspiration for the sound of Only God Forgives. We used that as temp score constantly. It turned out to be one of Cliff Martinez’s scores, too. It’s a magnificent piece of music.

There’s a lot written about actors and directors, but composers and directors, if you really look at great cinema, you generally find it’s because there was great music: Herrmann and Hitchcock, Morricone and Leone, Spielberg and John Williams. And if you look at Soderbergh and Cliff, they’re very intimate relationships that dig deeper than the actual conventions of actor/director. If you really look back at some of those constructions, you see a strong equal partnership.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

*Correction, July 22, 2013: Due to a transcription error, the article originally misstated the title of Death in Venice as Death in the Venice. (Return to the corrected sentence.)