Film and TV critic Clint Worthington (The Spool) talks to a new composer every week about the origins, challenges, and joys of their latest musical scores.
Ariel Marx (Candy)
On Friday the 13th, 1980, humble housewife Candy Montgomery killed her friend Betty Gore with an axe, slashing her 41 times in her friend's home. The resulting case was a lurid tale of infidelity, suburban malaise, and bizarre self-defense claims (which actually got Candy acquitted). It's the framework for Hulu's latest limited series based on a true crime sensation, Candy, a five-part miniseries that ran earlier this month starring Jessica Biel as Candy and Melanie Lynskey as Betty.
Conceived by showrunner Robin Veith, Candy plants us firmly in the low-key terror and isolation of suburban housewifedom, with both Biel and Lynskey's characters bristling against the deadening monotony of the middle-class American Dream, especially for women who've been told to aspire to that existence their whole lives.
Jabbing at the viewer's subconscious throughout all five episodes is the tense, discomforting score courtesy of composer and instrumentalist Ariel Marx. A quickly rising star thanks to tense scores in works like HBO's The Tale and the 2021 cringe comedy classic Shiva Baby, Marx's scores are punctuated with atonal, textured strings and woodwinds, constantly clawing at the carpeted edges of the subconscious to see what lies beneath. For Candy, Marx's killer command of unease is in full force, from the helter-skelter back and forth between piano and string in the eerie title sequence to the droning synths and electronic elements that spike through the veneer of normalcy Candy has set up for herself.
Marx sat down with me the week of Candy's airing to discuss her history as an instrumentalist and her love of strings. But most importantly, we break down the fundamental components of the "oppressive sameness" of Candy's spine-tingling score.
You can find Ariel Marx at her official website here.
You can watch all five episodes of Candy on Hulu. You can also listen to the score for Candy on your preferred music streaming service.
Karl Frid (Pleasure)
Films about sex are rare, films about porn even rarer. And when they do arrive, more often than not they're one-handed, moralistic tales of the subjugation and exploitation women experience in the porn industry. Ninja Thyberg's Pleasure, which we reviewed out of Sundance 2021 and is hitting wide release in America today, is more nuanced and complicated than that. Following a newly-arrived transplant from Sweden named Jessica (Sofia Kappel), who's landed in LA to break into porn, Pleasure refreshes by viewing this star-is-born narrative through the female gaze, and a surprising frankness about the need for consent and the complex power dynamics that happen for women in porn. Yes, there are the leering, predatory men for whom Thyberg's camera acts as their eye, gazing upon Jessica (who enters the industry under the nom de plume Bella Cherry) with all the ravenous hunger of the Big Bad Wolf. But as she learns more about her boundaries (and which ones she'll have to break to make it), Thyberg allows Bella to find a sense of power and assertiveness from time to time. Rather than vilifying or valorizing the adult film industry, Pleasure simply becomes a frank, dreamlike character study of how one woman navigates it, and finds her own avenues for pleasure and confidence even as it threatens to consume her.
Aiding that is the idiosyncratic score from Swedish composer Karl Frid, one half of the fraternal duo Frid & Frid with his brother Par. An experienced hand at Swedish film and television, Frid takes to this score with remarkable grace and inventiveness, charting Bella's voice between the twin poles of sacred opera and head-banging hip hop -- two contrasting sounds that operate as distinct expressions of Bella's own voice and confidence, intertwining in some of the film's most eye-opening moments. Centering female voices in the score, whether through soprano Caroline Gentele's operatic tones, or rapper-singer Mapei's aggressive, empowering lyrics, helps craft a musical universe within Bella's psyche, as well as the complex, morally grey universe of Pleasure.
Frid sat down with me to talk about how he was introduced to the project, finding that balance between the film's complex, contrasting tones, and locking down the spiritual narration of Bella's journey through the twin voices of the music.
You can find Frid & Frid at their official website here.
Pleasure comes to theaters May 13th. You can also listen to the score on your preferred music streaming service courtesy of Frid & Frid and Sony Music.
Hesham Nazih (Moon Knight)
One of the most heartening things about Disney+'s run of Marvel TV shows is that they seem to be an interesting staging ground for new ideas, the exploration of new communities, and -- most importantly for our interests -- new artists to reach broader audiences. That's certainly the case with Marvel's latest series in the MCU, Moon Knight, which sees Oscar Isaac as Marc Spector/Steven Grant, a pair of dissociative identities sharing the same body, which also happens to be able to summon the spirit of the Egyptian god Khonsu and turn them into the avenging superhero Moon Knight.
The series itself is a brisk, fun Indiana Jones-type adventure, wafting between breezy action sequences and more sobering explorations of the trauma of mental illness, child abuse, and more. But given its Egyptian setting, it's heartening that the vast majority of the talent both in front of and behind the camera are Egyptian, from its director Mohamed Diab to composer Hesham Nazih, a veteran film and TV composer with reams of accolades and more than twenty years of experience in Egyptian media.
For Moon Knight (his first English-language score), Nazih crafts a score that is both indebted to the gee-whiz adventure influences of the show itself and the cultural markers and musical identity of Egypt itself, combining the two into a unique musical synthesis that echoes the balancing scales Marc and Steven have to achieve in order to make themselves whole. Egyptian instruments combing with Arabic-language choir and the bombastic, brass-heavy sweep we expect of superhero blockbusters to create something that feels wholly new, while avoiding the cliches of most Western scores set in the Middle East and North Africa.
For the podcast, Hesham was lovely enough to sit down with me (on the first day of Eid al-Fitr!) to talk about transitioning his robust skill set to Marvel, weaving his own influences within the score while avoiding stereotype, and how his score fits in with the show's use of mahgraganat (a budding genre of exciting, fist-pumping protest music making waves in Cairo the last few years) in the musical fabric of the show.
The entire first (and only?) season of Moon Knight is currently streaming on Disney+. You can also listen to the score for Moon Knight on your preferred music streaming service courtesy of Marvel Music.
Son Lux's Rafiq Bhatia (Everything Everywhere All at Once)
How do you put music to the multiverse? Especially when the multiverse includes sights as strange as rocks with googly eyes, people with hot dog fingers, and heads exploding into glitter? That's the challenge experimental band Son Lux faced when composing the whirlwind, two-hour score for Daniels' latest film, Everything Everywhere All at Once.
Building on the devil-may-care absurdity of their previous works, like the music video for "Turn Down for What?" and 2016's farting-corpse buddy movie Swiss Army Man, Daniels starts their newest work simply -- a middle-aged Chinese immigrant (Michelle Yeoh) stresses about losing her laundromat and pleasing her visiting father. But before long, her distant husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) informs her that he's from a different universe, and she's the only person who's able to stop a chaotic force of destruction from destroying the multiverse as we know it. Kung fu fights, slapstick, and drama-filled confessions follow, spanning a million different genres, modes, and senses of humor.
Keeping up with such whirlwind intensity in the score is no small feat, but it's one that LA-based experimental trio Son Lux leaned into with aplomb in their first feature film score as a collective. Comprised of founder Ryan Lott and collaborators Ian Chang and Rafiq Bhatia, Lux's sound to date feels airy, ambient and cosmic, albums like their Tomorrows trilogy already capturing some of the kaleidoscopic grandeur Everything Everywhere needs. And indeed, the score itself matches that dynamism, as zany and nostalgic as it needs to be in the needs of the moment while still maintaining a cohesive throughline.
Now that the film's been out for a few weeks, I sat down with Son Lux member Rafiq Bhatia to talk about the film's soundtrack, Daniels' unusual collaborative processes, and the challenges of building a house around a single chair... metaphorically, of course.
You can find Son Lux at their official website here.
Everything Everywhere All at Once is currently playing in theaters everywhere. You can also listen to the score on your preferred music streaming service courtesy of A24 Music.
Theodore Shapiro (Severance)
In a world where so many people have learned to start working from home the last couple of years(and many still do), the phrase "don't take your work home with you" has become ever more dubious. But what if you could really leave it all at the office -- not just your work, but your memories of doing that work?
That's the eerie premise of Apple TV+'s latest series, Severance, a Ben Stiller-directed corporate satire that imagines a company that allows its employees to undergo an experimental procedure to cleave their memories in twain. One of you, the "Innie," only remembers the time you spent in the office; the other, the "Outie," gets to live their off-work hours blissfully unaware of the stressors or responsibilities of the job.
It sounds nice in practice, but for the Innies who actually work for the Lumon Corporation, it's a special kind of existentialist hell, where all they know are the four white, antiseptic walls of their office. And it's a place that Mark (Adam Scott) and the other three members of his department will have to navigate, as they work to figure out what their real lives are like and discern what they're actually doing for Lumon.
Severance is easily one of the best shows of the year thus far, flitting effortlessly in tone between horror and workplace comedy and haunting character drama thanks to Stiller's stylish, unpredictable direction.
Aiding the feeling of banal claustrophobia the show engenders is the score by Emmy-nominated composer Theodore Shapiro, who's scored just about every comedy you ever loved in the 2000s (13 Going on 30, Dodgeball, Jennifer's Body). But his versatility really shines through in his work with Stiller, especially here, where the existential emptiness of Lumon, and the Innies' lives in it, is personified by ominous descending piano melodies and mind-mending instrumental distortions.
I was lucky enough to sit down with Teddy to talk about Severance, the challenges of TV scoring, stepping out of the comedy wheelhouse, and finding the right, restrained sound for such a complicated show.
You can find Ted Shapiro at his official website here.
Severance is currently streaming on Apple TV+. You can also listen to the score for Severance on your preferred music streaming service courtesy of Endeavor Content.
Ben Salisbury & Geoff Barrow (Archive 81)
It's safe to say that the world of film music, especially modern film music, owes a lot to Portishead's Geoff Barrow. In a large way, that's due to the instrumentalist and musician's founding of indie label Invada Records in 2001, which placed an early focus on hip hop and experimental acts before pinning down a unique emphasis on releasing film scores.
But he's a prolific film and TV composer in his own right, as he paired with composer Ben Salisbury in the early 2010s for an abortive score to the 2012 film Dredd, which they later released as DROKK. From there, they sailed into an easy partnership with filmmaker Alex Garland, for whom they've scored all of his works since, from Ex Machina to Annihilation to Devs -- sneaky, unsettling scores that use found sounds and minimal instrumentation to convey the alienness of Garland's worlds.
It's an approach that works nicely for one of Netflix's newest shows (now a one-season wonder thanks to the recent news of its abrupt cancellation), the supernatural head-scratcher Archive 81, about an archivist (Mamoudou Athie) tasked with restoring a cache of mysterious documentary footage from a burned-down New York apartment building known as the Visser. From there, he finds himself lured into the viewpoint of deceased filmmaker Melody (Dina Shihabi) and the secrets she unearthed during her investigation. Timelines merge, prophecies are unraveled, and the true nature of the Visser's fate comes into sharp relief.
For the podcast, Ben and Geoff were kind enough to talk to me about the origins of their years-long partnership, Geoff's work with Invada Records, and the painstaking but rewarding process for carving out the analog atmosphere of Archive 81.
You can find Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow at their official websites.
Archive 81 is currently streaming on Netflix. You can also listen to the score for Archive 81 on your preferred music streaming service courtesy of Invada Records and Lakeshore Records.
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