Soundtracks On Vinyl: Themes For An Imaginary Film or Johnny Jewel's Unused Soundtrack For Drive

For our first edition of Soundtracks on Vinyl, we talk the release of Themes For An Imaginary Film, the alternate soundtrack/score to Drive.

By now, anyone interested in film has seen or at least heard of Danish auteur Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2011 Cannes Film Festival favorite, Drive.  Among the most visually and sonically striking films to come out in the last decade, Drive and notably it’s soundtrack began an alternative movement to film scores, notably that of a retro 1980s synthetic sound akin to the films of Michael Mann or Steven Soderbergh.  At one point the film featured on The Movie Sleuth’s list of Best Soundtracks, with its unforgettable opening track  Nightcall by Kavinski, A Real Hero by College and two tracks from Lost River composer Johnny Jewel, Under Your Spell and Tick of the Clock.  But what you may not be aware of is that prior to hiring Cliff Martinez to do the film’s ambient score, Refn and Jewel came very close to taking Drive in an entirely different musical direction altogether, which brings us to the recently released alternative score to the film produced by Jewel, Symmetry: Themes for an Imaginary Film.

Coming off of Bronson with the track Digital Versicolor, Refn and Jewel initially paired up to compose the soundtrack for Drive.  The studio instead persuaded Refn to go with Sex, Lies, and Videotape composer Cliff Martinez, initially against Refn’s wishes.  As time went on though, Refn would reteam with Martinez twice more for Only God Forgives and My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, making the director-composer partnership official.  That said, Refn still kept Jewel on board as a consultant when it came to designing the film’s soundtrack as well as choosing the right preexisting songs for the film.  Eventually, Johnny Jewel’s unused score for the film was released exclusively through his website, Italians Do It Better.   In other words, Themes for an Imaginary Film represents Drive as it might have sounded.

Pressed on 180 gram clear vinyl on a triple platter set, Themes for an Imaginary Film doesn’t hide the fact that it was intended for Drive with sleeve design depicting an 80s dashboard of a car driving against the multicolored Los Angeles mountain dusk.  Opening with sound of an ignition starting the car against a Daft Punk-like robotic voice and police sirens wailing, the music begins with those familiar synthetic drumbeats, funky melodies with a hint of melancholy, and can’t help but remind those of the opening credits for Drive.  Refraining from vocals with a running time exceeding the length of the film itself, Themes for an Imaginary Film is a captivating listen with an eclectic balance between dance beats, incorporation of viola and cello players and its own blend of ambience that makes for an equally electrifying match for Refn’s picture.  Among the highlights for this score include the second track City of Dreams with its mixture of Casio Keyboard melancholy or Outside Looking In with its uncanny resemblance to the jazzy score for Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth.

Some have argued the score might in fact be too informative in the way Lalo Schifrin’s unused The Exorcist score was, but one can be hard pressed to deny the score’s rich emotion and aural brilliance.  While this listener wasn’t always sure where to plug in each piece with the film, hearing it evokes a feeling that is undeniably the child of Johnny Jewel and Nicolas Winding Refn.  While in the end the score was ultimately junked, two tracks of Jewel’s managed to survive key scenes in the film and Themes is an exciting compendium of what almost was.  More than anything, upon listening to it, I kept wondering where it might have fit into Lost River with its kindred melancholic synthesized strings, beats and atmosphere.  There have been a fair share of alternative scores concocted in conjunction with Drive as either a tribute or inspiration, but only one of these actually involved the film’s director and nearly happened.  Cliff Martinez ultimately was the right choice for Drive but Johnny Jewel’s work is essential to any fan of either electronic music or Nicolas Winding Refn!

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-Andrew Kotwicki