Drive starts with the music. The film might actually begin with a near silent getaway sequence – the empty air a-buzz with nervous tension as Gosling’s nameless driver meticulously guides his car through the city’s shadowy sprawl – but it’s the moment when the film’s title erupts onto the screen in day-glo pink scrawl and Kavinsky’s pounding, sinister Nightcall explodes out of the silence that the film bursts into life.
Drive was born from the music as a film that was never meant to be. Originally conceived as a Hugh Jackman-led Fast & Furious type testosterone-fuelled car flick, Gosling landed the lead instead and was given the chance to choose his own director. According to Nicolas Winding Refn, their first meeting was a complete disaster: the Danish director was spaced out on cold medicine, the two had no chemistry whatsoever and they left the restaurant pretty much resigned to the fact that they would not be working together. It was only when they got in the car for the ride home and the radio came on and some old school techno sprang out from the dashboard that they shared the electronic satori that would eventually lead to the adored cult hit– tears apparently welling up in Refn’s eyes as he explained “This is what the movie is about!”
The city at night and a car and music – that’s what Drive is. It takes the urban alienation of noir, the aloneness of life surrounded by strangers, and drowns it in flickering neon and pulsating electronic beats. Cliff Martinez’s score brings out the wandering, dreamlike sense of the night, keeping perfect rhythm with the film as it drifts out into the sunlight like a modern day fairy tale and then plunges suddenly down into nightmarish ultra-violence.
Gosling supposedly asked for the majority of his character’s lines to be removed simply to give him a break from speaking after his intense experiences on the set of the dialogue-heavy, emotionally-punishing Blue Valentine. Refn’s highly stylized, minimalist vision for the film then saw what remained of Hossein Amini’s script gutted too and the mostly wordless Drive was created. The music fills all the spaces where those words used to go: a love story, a vengeance tale and a crime thriller all told primarily through its electric score. The switch lends it a mysterious, ethereal quality – we never quite get a hold of what he movie is, who the driver is, whether we’re witnessing a hero, a monster or a mad man – and allows the film to slide between the almost mundanely real and the hypnotically surreal at a moment’s notice.
The music is absurd and impossibly cool, sometimes in the same moment and just like the movie itself. Its synthed-up sounds can be slick, sincere and romantic while also being outlandish, garish and just kinda silly, indulging in over-the-top tunes by College and Desire to compliment the movie’s satin-clad melodrama. It’s integral to the movie in a way that became all the more clear with the fascinating but ultimately unsuccessful attempt at an alternate soundtrack in 2014. It featured the talents of artist like Scottish synthpop titans CHVRCHES and had some interesting sounds but in the end it didn’t work because the soundtrack to Drive is much more than a surface layer that can be peeled off and switched out – it’s the engine of the movie and everything it burns, the thing that makes it come alive.
This Cliff Martinez article was written by Ross McIndoe, a GIGsoup contributor