Over the years, numerous rock musicians have made the transition into film music, from Pop Will Eat Itself frontman Clint Mansell to Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood. Even established film composers James Newton Howard and Danny Elfman have their roots in pop and rock, having worked with Elton John and Oingo Boingo respectively. But few have made the transition as successfully as former Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Cliff Martinez. Born in New York in 1954, Martinez first made a name for himself by contributing to the music for cult TV series Pee-wee's Playhouse. However, he gained greater attention by working with a diverse range of celebrated musicians throughout the new wave/post punk era of the early 1980s, including the hugely influential Captain Beefheart and underground singer Lydia Lunch. However, Martinez hit the big time when he was appointed as drummer to then fledgling band Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Martinez was assigned to replace original drummer Jack Irons and worked on the band's self-titled debut album and their second "Freaky Styley". Although the band have since established themselves as one of the most influential rock bands of their generation, amassing sixteen Grammy Award nominations, neither of their first two albums was a commercial success. And Martinez' own involvement with the group was short-lived – he was fired by members Flea and Anthony Kiedis during the recording of album number three "The Uplift Mofo Party Plan". Nevertheless, not long after Martinez struck up an enduring partnership with director Steven Soderbergh. In 1989, Martinez was tapped to score Soderbergh's directorial debut feature Sex, Lies and Videotape, a low-budget drama starring James Spader and Andie McDowell. The film was released to immense acclaim and has subsequently been credited with helping to kick-start the independent movie scene of the 1990s. It also helped to kick-start Martinez' film score career, showcasing his characteristic blend of ambience and rock-infused elements.
The collaboration between Martinez and Soderbergh went on to span everything from the director's early features (King of the Hill in 1993) to later, critically acclaimed hits (Traffic in 2000). Martinez' grungy, understated music has lent a moody texture to many of the director's films but the composer regards his score for Soderbergh's 2002 film Solaris as his personal favourite. A remake of the cult 1972 Russian sci-fi headscratcher, the film (starring George Clooney) allowed Martinez the chance to inject understated, resonant emotion into his usual subtle orchestrations, effectively capturing the film's themes of memory, loss and redemption.
Although his music rarely calls attention to itself, instead content to subtly tweak the emotions, Martinez has shown an uncanny knack for attaching himself to critically praised films, from 2002 police procedural Narc to 2011 Matthew McConaughey legal thriller The Lincoln Lawyer. But it was 2011 film Drive that marked the second phase in the composer's film score career. Directed by Danish auteur Nicolas Winding Refn and starring Ryan Gosling, Drive garnered acclaim for its retro stylings and fusion of car chase movie with brutal revenge thriller. Martinez' dreamy, ambient score, a soundscape in which understated humanity and metallic dissonance co-exist on a knife's edge, was hailed as one of the film's finest elements, expertly weaving around a dynamic selection of retro pop tunes including "Nightcall" by Kavinsky and "A Real Hero" by College and Electric Youth.
In 2013, Martinez reunited with Winding Refn for the controversial Only God Forgives. The film's operatic, bizarre melding of Bangkok-set revenge thriller with psychosexual undertones divided critics and audiences but it nevertheless provided a canvas onto which Martinez could project what is possibly his boldest score yet. Mixing faux-lush strings with Oriental instrumentation, booming organs and churning electronics, the score played a vital element in the dialogue-light film, often being placed at the forefront of the sound design. In just two decades, Martinez has established a distinctive voice in the world of film music, one that bears striking hallmarks of his rock background. In 2012, Martinez' career was lent a pleasing sense of symmetry when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Although his contribution to the band may have been short-lived, it nevertheless proved to be a defining influence on his later career as a film composer – a career that will undoubtedly continue to strike out into exciting and unpredictable areas.
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