Never one to shy away from outrage or controversy, Drive and Only God Forgives director Nicolas Winding Refn is back with his latest film, darkly satirical fashion industry expose cum vampire horror The Neon Demon. Elle Fanning stars as young ingenue Jesse whose descent into the hellish machinery of the Los Angeles modelling industry takes some seriously twisted turns, from necrophilia to more besides. Handsomely and impassively shot in visually lush primary shades by cinematographer Natasha Braier, the film has generated a decidely mixed reaction with viewers split as to whether the movie contains anything of substance or is simply an unpleasant wallow in exploitation sleaze. However there's no denying that Refn's eccentric and surrealistic approach offers bountiful opportunity for composer Cliff Martinez to craft a striking and rich soundscape in his music. Reuniting with the director after the aforementioned Drive and Only God Forgives, the former Red Hot Chilli Peppers drummer continues to stake his claim as one of the most distinctive of contemporary film composers. However whereas a great deal of Martinez' scores dwell in a relatively discreet and ambient vein (particularly his work with Steven Soderbergh such as Traffic), his works with Refn, especially Only God Forgives, allow him to play around more extensively with unusual textures and occasionally soaring operatic moments.
The Neon Demon confirms their partnership as one of the most exciting and dynamic in contemporary film music, an almost entirely synthetic score that throws back to the woozy, otherwordly sounds of Tangerine Dream, Wendy Carlos, Goblin and Vangelis. Refn has himself confessed the movie to be a love letter to the exploitation movies with which he grew up and Martinez' music is pitched at a similarly retro angle, gliding and pulsating and churning in a manner that throws back to a very specific era of film music. In fact, the composer describes the project as "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls meets The Texas Chainsaw Massacre", which should inform the listener about the direction in which the score is headed.
Although not a theme-driven score in the strictest sense, it is all held together by an eerily undulating motif introduced in opener 'Neon Demon', a piece that hovers between the attractive and the icy in quite captivating fashion whilst representing naive Jesse's descent into the film's horrific inferno. Accompanying Jesse's journey this idea courses its way through the score, often pitted against more rhythmically challenging ideas as in 'Messenger Walks Among Us', a standout piece that gradually becomes more forceful over the course of 6 minutes, or just rising above a whisper in the likes of the beguiling 'Runway', where it sits alongside a host of scurrying effects almost akin to the pitter-patter sound of rain falling (eventually given way to unnerving, rotor-blade esque sounds).
It also features, in much colder fashion, in the fluttering 'Thank God You're Awake - Remix' and to slow-burning, spine-tingling and burgeoning effect in 'Ruby's Close Up', alongside a host of skittering textures and a synthetic chime effect that tinkles its way through the soundtrack. The desolate finale 'Get Her Out of Me' sees the chilling final statement of the theme, the score seemingly stripped of all humanity in its last movements. However, truthfully this is not a score of theme but of mood, and the variety of textures that Martinez is able to extract from his ensemble is mesmerising.
The first half of the score is, generally speaking, surprisingly attractive with the tinkling chimes lending a featherweight tone to 'What Are You' and the Jerry Goldsmith-esque 'Don't Forget Me When You're Famous', whose surging tone indicates we're on the threshold of some remarkable revelation. There are dark moments with the grinding, creepy 'Ruby at the Morgue' an indicator of the material to come later on. By contrast, 'Gold Paint Shoot' is akin to Angelo Badalamenti's more elusive and mysterious work with David Lynch, ebbing and flowing in the manner of a wave; 'Take Off Your Shoes' percolates and swirls around, augmented by bird-like noises whereas the score's secondary theme, first heard in 'Jesse Sneaks Into Her Room' and 'Real Lolita Rides Again', both carry more than a hint of John Carpenter in their insistently prodding synth undercurrent.
Around the halfway point of the album the brief 'Take Her to Measurements' ushers in the far more melancholy 'Who Wants Sour Milk' - and this is where the score takes a decidedly darker turn. The understated 'I Would Never Say You're Fat' leads to the more darkly alluring tone of 'Kinky', whose buzzing electronic ripples could have come straight out of Blade Runner whilst again playing around with the 'Jesse Sneaks Into Her Room' theme, building it to near-ecstatic heights.
'Ruby's Close Up' is another of those intoxicating tracks that seemingly builds from sound design rather than music, the main theme increasingly buried beneath brutalist textures whilst the deceptively titled 'Lipstick Drawing' is perhaps the harshest of all, drum machines and synth growls decidedly monstrous compared to what has come before. 'Something's In My Room' toys with a tender sense of humanity before the unyielding darkness of 'Are We Having a Party' leads into the aforementioned coldness of 'Get Her Out Of Me'.
Complementing Martinez' score are two synthpop tracks, 'Mine' and 'Waving Goodbye' by English/Danish group Sweet Tempest and Australian singer Sia, respectively, both of which fit excellently into the retro nostalgia groove that Refn and Martinez establish. Aso present is a track called 'The Demon Dance' by Refn's son, Julian, a terrifically churning and compelling slice of electronic energy that is in fact one of the best pieces on the album.
It's all part of a unique and beautifully crafted tapestry that makes for one of the most singular soundtrack experiences of 2016. In recent years, several soundtrack composers have drawn on the electronic tone of the 1980s in their scores, from Jeff Grace with Cold in July to Steve Moore with The Guest; Martinez however is surely at the forefront of this soundtrack subset, bringing considerable dramatic intuition and rhythmic dexterity to his work that transcends mere pastiche. Indeed, The Neon Demon sits at an intriguing junction between past and present, a retro throwback score that is also a defiant statement of a contemporary musical voice, quite possibly Martinez' most accomplished and memorable score to date.