With an estimated 41 million households tuning into its third season (and first to premiere on Netflix), “Cobra Kai” has turned ‘80s nostalgia for the characters from “The Karate Kid” into a modern hit.
It’s also created a vast musical landscape for the series’ composers Zach Robinson and Leo Birenberg to pay tribute to some of the corniest sonic touchstones in genre-bending ways as the 37-track soundtrack sees the duo leading a massive, 90-piece orchestra across many styles from hard rock to synthwave to Japanese classical.
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Since 2017, “Cobra Kai” has been a lead collaboration for Robinson and Birenberg, who first started working together nearly a decade ago supporting Christophe Beck in composing the music for such films as “Frozen,” “Ant-Man” and “The Peanuts Movie.”
“[‘Cobra Kai’] truly represents both of us, and our coming of age as composers and as musicians,” Robinson says. “I came up from a rock background and Leo came from a jazz orchestra background, and we do a lot of interchanging of that, so it’s funny that ‘Cobra Kai’ requires all of this. You couldn’t have a more perfect project for our interests and sounds and our voices.”
Adds Birenberg of what’s been dubbed “Miyagi Metal:” “We’re really proud of this hair metal-synthwave orchestral palette that we’ve created because there’s nothing else that sounds like it. It’s pulling from all these different influences that were part of our life growing up.”
Robinson credits the series’ creators Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg with setting the tone for the musical vision early on. “In our very first meeting, Jon said, ‘You don’t understand, “Karate Kid” is our “Star Wars.”’ And that’s never been more on display than this new season in particular.”
And while there are nods to Bill Conti’s score for the 1984 original film, “It was important to establish that we were not scoring ‘The Karate Kid,’ we were scoring ‘Cobra Kai,’” Robinson adds. “We wanted to draw from a lot of hair metal influences, which you don’t hear a lot of in scores, and take elements of the 80s synthpop and new wave, post-punk type sounds and incorporate that into the music.”
The overlapping influences come to a head in the finale, as the dojos led by Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) and Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) convene for a climactic battle. The extended fight sequence is scored by the epic, nearly 10-minute “Duel of the Snakes,” which Birenberg says has all the elements of a dramatic score. “You’ve got father-son betrayals, master-student betrayals, the stakes are literally life and death. It’s just giant orchestra the whole way through and it brings in our bass guitar and drums. It’s a major climax in the storytelling.”
While season four of “Cobra Kai” has already been greenlit, Robinson and Birenberg are hopeful that production won’t start until post-COVID protocols can enable a safe environment for recording its 90-piece orchestra again. “I can’t even imagine doing the scale of ‘Cobra Kai’’s orchestral recording all remotely,” Birenberg says. “We haven’t gotten into season four at all yet, but I wouldn’t want to compromise. Part of the reason you record an orchestra is there’s an energy and a sense of scope and scale to having 90 people in the room at the same time. The way that 10 violins sound together doesn’t sound the same as 10 individual violins stacked on top of each other. Zach and I always want something to be the best version of itself, so who knows what challenges COVID will present and if they’ll overlap with season four. But I’d almost rather look for other parts of that palette to explore and do the musical problem solving than try to make something sound like something it’s not.”
Until then, Robinson is grateful to have another opportunity to spread his musical wings. “As composers, we’re also people that love movies and television, so I think our guidance always comes from, ‘If we were watching the show, what would we want to hear?’ I’m watching stuff all the time and get so frustrated because I want to hear certain things. But with ‘Cobra Kai,’ we know there’s no regrets with anything we do.”
Chimes in Birenberg: “We leave it all on the mat.”
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