Drive, and exploring alternative movie soundtracks

A rescoring of Drive has caused online outrage, but Mark's keeping an open mind about musical reinterpretations

Movie music matters. It’s tough to wax lyrical about why it matters without sounding like one of those autocue scripts that we’ll be hearing all throughout the coming awards season, probably read out by unlikely pairs of presenters, (“Now, to present the award for Best Sound Editing, Justin Bieber and Angela Lansbury!”) so let’s just say that it does.

Whether it’s an original score from Hans Zimmer or a jukebox tour of Quentin Tarantino’s record collection, a movie’s soundtrack informs the tone and timbre of the movie itself. So when we get into the question of movie rescores, we’re really getting back into that thorny issue of asking whether the director’s original intentions are sacrosanct to any subsequent versions of a film. As some of you may already have guessed, we bring this up because of Radio 1 Rescores: Drive.

Aside from redefining neo-noir cool, the lasting legacy of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive is its soundtrack, which stands as the most memorable of recent years. So when BBC Three announced that they would air a Radio 1 Rescore version of the film, featuring new tracks from various artists and bands, curated by DJ Zane Lowe, there were a few knee-jerk negative reactions. (Speaking personally, my own gut instinct was something like “WHAT FRESH HELL IS THIS?”)

Bands such as Bastille, Chvrches and SBTRKT collaborated over the course of 18 months to create exclusive tracks inspired by the original film. The result might have been better received as a concept album, but the knives were out for this one long before it was broadcast on October 30th. It’s not that the new songs are bad, it’s just that the originals are already indelibly tied up in the iconography of the film.

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For instance, in the original soundtrack, Real Hero by College and Electric Youth is a motif that runs through a harmonious scene between the Driver, his love interest Irene and her young son, which also recurs at the end of the film. In the rescore, The 1975 provided a new track, Medicine. Like much of the new soundtrack, there’s nothing wrong with the song on its own, but it doesn’t sit as well as the original track.

The overall consensus, before and after the screening, seems to be “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Some would suggest that Drive was a poor choice for the first of these Radio 1 Rescores, because its soundtrack is already held in such high regard, but that’s actually exactly why it’s an ideal choice.

The only choice that could possibly have gotten more attention would have been Pulp Fiction. That’s heresy to some, but it would have put the cat among the pigeons and got people thinking about the idea. Still, it’s hard to imagine Tarantino signing off on such a prospect as readily as Winding Refn did for Drive.

“I consider it a great honour that my movie Drive inspired so many wonderful artists to come together and create one ultra-cool glam experience,” said Winding Refn, who fully approved of the rescore and got involved in the 18 month process. As a director who’s known for his subversive artistic qualities, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that he’s been so evangelical about the idea.

Zane Lowe himself stressed that this was merely his bootleg-style tribute to the original and not a comment on its quality. In advance of the broadcast, he tweeted: “It’s important to say that no one is trying to improve [the original soundtrack] here. It is a parallel experience that you can choose to watch or not.”

That’s the thing to keep in mind here – this is an experiment that hasn’t really been seen on TV in recent memory. For anyone who just wanted to watch the film with its original soundtrack, there was an option to switch back using the red button. But aside from the admittedly patchy execution of this particular case, it’s undeniably interesting to see a populist channel like BBC Three deliver such a curiosity for movie music buffs.

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There are some precedents for this re-scoring business. In broadcasting, Turner Classic Movies aired The Wizard Of Oz in the US without commercial interruption in 2000, and offered Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon as an alternative soundtrack to the first 45 minutes, in reference to the popular “Dark Side Of The Rainbow” theory.

When the coincidental syncing of the album and the 1939 classic came to prominence in the media in 1997, Pink Floyd’s drummer Nick Mason joked: “It’s absolute nonsense. It’s nothing to do with The Wizard Of Oz, it was all based on The Sound Of Music.” In all of the mad theories about the film, the original has still endured just fine.

Universal Studios Home Entertainment went one further when they re-released 1931’s Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi, on VHS and DVD with a new score by Philip Glass and the Kronos Quartet in 1999, around the time they were first trying to reinvigorate their classic “Universal Monsters” brand. Likewise, Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe wrote a 2005 album called Battleship Potemkin intended to accompany Eisenstein’s seminal silent movie.

It was first performed alongside the film at a free concert in Trafalgar Square in 2005, and Tennant and Lowe have variously performed it around the world ever since. A DVD and Blu-ray release with their score still seems to be entangled in legal red tape, but the album is still available if you’re interested in trying to sync it up manually.

There’s also been a recent resurgence of silent movie screenings with live musical accompaniment, from bands such as film critic Mark Kermode’s skiffle band, The Dodge Brothers. Likewise, London-based film buffs have recently had the opportunity to attend screenings of films like Beasts Of The Southern Wild and 2009’s Star Trek with live orchestral accompaniment.

Such events have a premium on the experience – a different reason to go out and see films you may already own on DVD at home – but aren’t these also fundamentally different from the original intention? If you have a purist’s attitude to the original soundtrack of a text, how far do you take it?

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It’s even possible for two versions of the same film to be on release, with different scores. In the 1980s, the infamous head of Universal, Sidney Sheinberg, responded to poor test screenings of Ridley Scott’s Legend by asking him to replace Jerry Goldsmith’s score with a more contemporary version.

German electronic group Tangerine Dream created a new score for the film, which accompanied the film’s US release. In Europe and the rest of the world, we got the original Jerry Goldsmith score and the new score wasn’t available to European audiences outside of bootleg albums, until the Ultimate Edition DVD release in 2002. Whichever version Scott considers to be definitive, it remains that different audiences will have had very different experiences of watching that film.

In all of this, the most interesting thing is that the BBC took a big, unexpected step with Radio 1’s Drive, in bringing the social media phenomenon of “produsage” to a broadcast audience. Produsage, as defined by media scholar Axel Bruns, refers to user-led content creation, with producers responding to another text by using it to create something else and sharing it with others. Whether they would call themselves producers is immaterial in the act itself, but it’s become a part of how they consume art and information.

Without getting too deep into open source projects like Wikipedia, which Bruns also covers in his definition, it must be seen that we’re currently in an era where fans can manipulate, reimagine and share texts as they please. We’ve all seen this stuff, whether it’s something as simple as a fan music video that puts disparate clips from a film or TV series to music, or wide-ranging as the mashed-up remake of Star Wars that pulled together hundreds of fan submitted videos of scenes into a feature length do-over.

If we’re so used to this, then why did online fans have such a negative reaction to the very notion of rescoring Drive? Writing in 2000, Bruns’ definition stipulates that produsage is not broadcast, emphasising individuals in the exchange, but as social networks have further expounded upon his original theories, it’s time to consider that this experiment was just as valid.

Everyone involved seems to like the film enough to have invested time in writing new material inspired by the film, and even if the likes of The 1975 and Bastille are celebrity produsers, it’s only subjective taste that makes their efforts any better or lesser than, say, a YouTube fan trailer that represents Winding Refn’s film as a breezy romantic comedy.

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We’re not arguing that you have to like the end result of the rescore just because it was an interesting experiment – only that it was a worthy endeavour, and something we could stand to see more of in the future. It’s unclear what the future will be as BBC Three transitions from television to the internet towards the end of next year – clearance issues seem to be different for iPlayer. But it will be interesting to see if the station or any of its DJs have any other ideas for rescores up their sleeves.

In the end, all artists reinterpret other art – it’s the only way that anyone learns how to produce anything. Different interpretations don’t discard meaning as much as they make an alternative meaning, subjective to the artist. As long as it’s not replacing or supplanting the original, then it behoves us to keep an open mind about such reinterpretations, whether with movies or their soundtracks.

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