As ‘Drive’ Turns 10, Its Composer and Key Songwriter Recall the Film’s Innovative Soundtrack

·5-min read

In the 10 years since the release of Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive,” the lives of two key figures behind its pivotal soundtrack, Johnny Jewel and Cliff Martinez, have changed for the better, thanks to the film.

“Before ‘Drive’ coming out, I was standing by the freeway with a cardboard sign that said, ‘Will score for food,’” jokes “Drive’s” composer, Martinez, a sometimes drummer in Red Hot Chili Peppers, and one of Steven Soderbergh’s go-to composers. “I wasn’t exactly struggling, but I would go for months without work. My popularity ebbs and flows, but for the most part, I’m much more popular than I was before 2011.”

More from Variety

“For those of us in the underground, ‘Drive’ was huge,” says Jewel, who has two key songs on the soundtrack — “Tick of the Clock,” with his former band, the Chromatics, and “Under Your Spell” with his other band, Desire.

“’Drive’ is a niche film,” Jewel continues, “but it’s very popular and very groundbreaking and in a musical sense, very impactful. The level of discovery from people seeing the movie and then wanting to hear more stuff like that put what we were doing in the underground in the focus of the mainstream.”

Only five of the 20 or so pieces of music collected on the “Drive” soundtrack are needle drops. It’s these five, specifically the two from Jewel, that set the sonic tone for the film.

The opening sequence is soundtracked by “Tick of the Clock,” which, at almost 10 minutes, is also the longest cue. The song plays like score, and for quite a while Jewel was under the impression that he was commissioned to score “Drive.”

According to Jewel, when Ryan Gosling was attached to the picture, the actor had his choice of director and composer. He chose Refn and Jewel, respectively. “Digital Versicolor,” Jewel’s song with his band Glass Candy, had been featured three times in Refn’s 2008 film, “Bronson,” and and his 2007 album with the Chromatics, “Night Drive,” had a strong influence on the color of “Drive.”

Gosling and Refn came to one of Jewel’s shows in Los Angeles and asked him to do the score for “Drive.” Jewel said yes. They brainstormed about the vibe and sonic references such as Brian Eno and Tangerine Dream. Jewel returned to Montréal, Canada, where he was living at the time, read the James Sallis novel from which “Drive” was adapted, and started writing and recording. During this time, Jewel stayed in touch with Refn via Skype and kept working on the score.

“’Drive’ was my first feature,” says Jewel. “Before that, my only experience with film or commercials or fashion runways was them taking songs I had already made. I didn’t really understand how it was supposed to work in a formal Hollywood type of way. I was making songs not really understanding the back and forth aspect of it and notes from a bunch of different people that aren’t necessarily the director. I was focusing on the creative side of things. I didn’t have a proper contract. I wasn’t aware they hired someone else. I only realized it when we were mixing and my needle drops were being used, but the score was new stuff.”

Meanwhile, Martinez was brought to Adam Siegel, one of the film’s producers, by Brian McNelis of Lakeshore Entertainment, which was releasing the soundtrack. Martinez played Refn the Cristal Baschet, an experimental instrument, in his living room, and he says Refn was “transfixed.”

Martinez composed the film’s iconic score in a speedy five weeks (just in time for the Cannes Film Festival, where Refn won the Best Director Award) with the needle drops as his sonic guide.

“At the time, the song choices were controversial, a little too eccentric,” says Martinez. “Oftentimes, a song compilation score is too eclectic for a composer to follow in its stylistic footsteps. But four of those songs could be the same band and two of them were [Jewel], so it felt stylistically unified. I can acknowledge that with the score, and [Refn], in so many words, told me to do that. In hindsight, it’s hard to imagine anything else in that film. [Refn] was ahead of everybody.”

Since “Drive,” Martinez has scored the films “Only God Forgives” and “The Neon Demon” for Refn, as well as the Amazon limited series “Too Old to Die Young” and “My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn,” the documentary on Refn’s life directed by his wife. He has also been tapped for television series, video games and commercials. Apple even wanted him to create a ringtone based on what he did for the “Drive” score. “It had a huge impact,” Martinez says. “My whole career changed.”

Gosling finally was able to put Jewel in the composer’s seat for his 2015 directorial debut, “Lost River.” Jewel has since scored numerous films including “Zeroville” (2019), “Into the Mirror” (2018), “Don’t Come Back From the Moon” (2017) and “A Beautiful Now” (2014). He also just signed on to score “Holly” with Fien Troch, for whom he scored “Home” (2016).

The Chromatics recently disbanded, but Jewel continues to be prolific, releasing music under his own name and with a variety of projects on his own label, Italians Do It Better.

What he has not released is the score he wrote for “Drive” — although there has been widespread speculation that his Symmetry album, “Themes for an Imaginary Film,” is that score. Jewel can set the record straight on that: “’Themes for an Imaginary Film’ was an album I was working on three years before ‘Drive.’ I released it a few months after ‘Drive.’ The album is 30 minutes longer than the film, so it’s not the score. It’s a concept album of instrumentals that weren’t going to be used for my pop bands. It’s a 37-track album — two pieces of which were for ‘Drive,’” he clarifies, “but that’s it.”

Best of Variety

Sign up for Variety’s Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting