On paper, Drive sounds like a pretty conventional film. It’s got a big name star (Ryan Gosling), surrounded by other big name stars (Albert Brooks, Bryan Cranston, Carey Mulligan and Christina Hendricks) in a fairly conventional-sounding plot (L.A. driver falls in love with woman, takes on a dangerous assignment for her, things become unglued, etc). That’s Drive on paper.
In practice, it’s something else entirely. In keeping with director Nicholas Winding Refn’s other work, the film is largely silent, and when it’s not silent, it’s quiet. The Los Angeles that Drive shows isn’t glamorous, it isn’t gritty, it’s a depiction audiences haven’t seen before, though the film Heat comes kind of close.
And this divergence between paper and practice leads the Drive soundtrack off into fairly uncharted territory. The music isn’t quite ambient, as it very much occupies the forefront of the film, but it’s calm, in bombastic fashion. The soundtrack’s DNA lies very much in breath-y 80’s pop, for no discernible reason. It’s the type of music you would expect to start playing when Ryan Gosling, the actor, enters a room. It’s feminine, soft, and powerful, just like Gosling.
Let’s stop talking about Gosling now. I don’t like where this is going.
Refn, who was, by all accounts the arbiter of the soundtrack and the film in general, looked to Johnny Jewel, a mixer and musician in groups such as Desire, Chromatics, and Glass Candy. However, the studio insisted upon composer Cliff Martinez, who would imitate Jewel’s style, and include his work, with their logic being they wanted someone who had done a soundtrack before to manage the soundtrack. Seems logical.
This arrangement ultimately satisfied all parties, and the Drive soundtrack, consisting of original compositions from Martinez, as well as work from other artists such as Chromatics, College, and Desire. By all most critical accounts, this ethereal, dreamy soundtrack was a heavy hand that the film needed to make a statement that lacked in its characters and glacial pacing.
To that end, Drive is a film that doesn’t beg repeat viewings, save for an appreciation of the stylistic surfaces. And the soundtrack certainly doesn’t have much in the way of a pop sensibility, but was received as an ambient curation that would look damn good in Whole Foods checkout line, so it found its way up to #4 on the iTunes charts.
The film seemed generally well-liked, but not loved, as did the soundtrack. Both phenomena aren’t very hard to explain. Refn brings to us a movie that is interesting and captivating, but ultimately (and intentionally) unsatisfying. It’s the type of movie you’d recommend to a friend, then do a quick inventory on the person to ensure you made the right decision.
The soundtrack/score is a great collection, but one that, both inside (see below) and outside the movie, doesn’t settle into a proper home. Like so many soundtracks, it’s difficult to recreate the success (or failure) of it outside the context of the film.
However, the soundtrack is difficult to assess in the context of the film as well, which is unfortunate, because that’s precisely what this column is supposed to do. If anything, it adds to the quiet serenity of Gosling’s Driver, and allows for the destruction of this serenity with the film’s many violent scenes. Of course, this is all coming from a writer who realized, about thirty minutes into listening to the soundtrack, that a YouTube playlist of the soundtrack had been playing at the same time, but different songs. There wasn’t a huge difference to be honest.
Like the film, the Drive soundtrack didn’t really blaze a trail for the artists that participated. Most people still don’t know who Chromatics are (though they would probably like them if they liked the Drive soundtrack). It did immensely benefit M83, whose single, “Midnight City” is often and incorrectly attributed to the film’s soundtrack.
The artist that gained the most from the soundtrack wasn’t even on it. He just seemed like he should be. And that says more about the soundtrack than even the songs on it might.