Reel Sounds… Mica Levi’s Under the Skin

I’m a film music junkie and 2014 produced some especially noteworthy scores. I’ve wanted to mention my favorites on this site for longer than I care to admit. So here it goes. From now on, I’ll regularly pluck out a score, that, for whatever reason, I find intriguing. From time to time, I also plan to pontificate on where the genre is headed. Film music is a bewitching slice of the music world that’s often overlooked and underheard. It’s a snapshot for the health of the sonic world writ large–and a space where classical music prevails.

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For my first pick, I’m obliged to mention Mica Levi’s disturbed score to Jonathan Glazer’s equally unsettling work Under the Skin (2014). Levi, who often goes by Micachu, is an English musician and producer entrenched in something halfheartedly called experimental pop. Since 2009, she’s released a handful of celebrated albums and mixtapes and scooped up fans like Björk.

Considering Levi’s credentials, it’s astonishing that Under the Skin is her first score. But given the bounty of independent musicians trying their hand at film scoring, I’m not surprised she had a go. It’s thrilling that directors continue to seek unconventional talent. Here’s to hoping the term “indie” is on the way out–especially in the era of the Billboard-crushing self-releasing artist.

Even with this inventive take on production, the film is often likened to work by Stanley Kubrick. Aside from the ambiguous narrative and unnerving cinematography, I’m sure music plays a part. Kubrick was renowned, and hated, for using modernist works by Bartok and Ligeti and the persona of Levi’s score is much in that lineage. (Jonny Greenwood, another crossover kid, made a name ripping off Messiaen for Paul Thomas Anderson.)

Levi conjures few respites from insectile, sul ponticello tremolos and an ever-present drum beat. This musical monotony intensifies the few mood changes. Take “Love,” which sounds over perhaps the movie’s finest scene nailing the infinite complexity of the word.

In this moment, we realize that the score speaks for Scarlett Johansson’s character. With so little context and exposition from Glazer–Under the Skin views as one act in a grander tale–the music delivers most of what we know about this stranger in a strange land. And perhaps this is why I’m conflicted about the half-realized nature of film as a whole. I can’t say I enjoyed the experience though I greatly respect Glazer’s courage to twist this story out of a very different novel.

We’re left with Johansson the ephemeral traveler. Once she questions her one prerogative, nothing can be the same. All along, Levi’s score deftly captures a creeping dissociation from people, places and things–something dangerously implicit in our connected era. When we question all we know, what is left? Glazer and Levi’s prognosis isn’t good.

By the way, Levi released a mixtape to finish out the year.

One thought on “Reel Sounds… Mica Levi’s Under the Skin

  1. My favorite movie score is “Vertigo” by Bernard Herrmann so I am WAY behind this current movie curve. But you raise and reference some interesting points about the freedom from conventional notation and instrumentation that contemporary film scores embody. Whether the average film viewer notices or not, the film score IS the soul of the emotional force of viewing and works hand in hand with the visual and narrative force to create the total effect.

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