When you give an established recording artist the chance to branch out from their band and score a film, anything can happen. You can launch a second career, as happened to Danny Elfman; build a dreamy catalog that defines a decade, like Tangerine Dream’s iconic body of work in the ’80s; match artist to artist with soulmate accuracy, like Trent Reznor to David Fincher, or Jonny Greenwood to Paul Thomas Anderson; or simply create oddball one-offs for fans only, like Daft Punk’s Tron 2.0 or Neil Young’s Dead Man compositions.
But with a score by Mica Levi, anything can happen while you listen. You’ll only be able to guess what shape the music will take next, what emotion it will evoke. A First Lady’s elegant life can quickly become a horror film, or a mysterious stranger’s seduction can become a surreal swarm of dangerous noise. With her band Micachu and the Shapes, Levi gained admiration from listeners searching for a truly new sound—including Jonathan Glazer, the accomplished music video director who tapped Levi to score his startling 2013 sci-fi feature Under the Skin. “He really took a big risk,” Levi says. “I really felt like I was trying out [to be] CEO of a bank or something, like I was just as likely to get that job.” Levi’s abstractions were perfectly suited to the film’s alien imagery, and she ended up winning the European Film and LA Film Critics Award for Best Composer and Best Music Score, respectively. It became so popular that Levi live-scored the film at LA’s Regent Theater.
Her score for Pablo Larraín’s Jacqueline Kennedy biopic Jackie confronts the audience immediately; strings take a chilling glissando glide down in pitch before the first frame of the film lights by, signaling the visceral drop into grief that lies ahead. Though this is only her second score, the glissando is quickly becoming a signature of Levi’s adventurous, avant-garde approach. “It’s a warped musical sensibility. But it’s also a very rich and indulgent sound, a stretched out gesture,” she says. Of the opening track, Levi notes, “It ended up signifying Lee Harvey Oswald. That fear. That threat. The madness of the world.”
Levi’s work on Jackie was an opportunity to both return to and experiment with the classical composition work she first studied at her native England’s Purcell School and at the Guildhall School of Music. In order to convey the complex loss of innocence that accompanied Jackie Kennedy’s having to step out of her husband’s shadow while simultaneously mourning him, Levi had to also establish the innocence before the tragedy, with gorgeous string arrangements suitable for a presidency romantic and regal enough to be nicknamed “Camelot.” “I hadn’t seen the film before I started working on it. I knew the tone, how it looked,” she says. “But I was just thinking about Jackie Kennedy. I was guessing at her vibe, trying to write music that felt like her. She was quite elegant, graceful, and sassy underneath it.”
While Levi’s exceptional work for Jackie carries a resonant balance of pomp and pain, her own musical tastes run just as unpredictable as her compositions. Here, she points out some of her influences, interests, and thoughts on the process behind her very unexpected (and welcome) side career in scoring films.
FAVORITE FILM SCORE
Bruce Langhorne’s The Hired Hand. I really love that. It’s so beautiful.
FAVORITE RECENT FILM SCORE
Spring Breakers [by Cliff Martinez] fit the film well… I thought the film was quite romantic. I feel like that guy (Alien, James Franco’s character) really loved both of them!
FAVORITE FILM COMPOSERS
Bernard Herrmann, definitely. And I don’t know who writes the music for those Walt Disney films, but watching Disney films when I was a kid, that really got into my bones.
FAVORITE MUSICAL MOMENTS IN FILM
I think I watch way more music videos than I do films, actually. That’s really what I think of… But I do like, in old films, the use of heavy romantic music over quite small moments. There’s something in the archness of it. So, say a woman looks out the window, she’s just been told this terrible news, and you get this incredibly rich, dramatic music, when all she’s doing is looking out the window. That kind of extreme, over-romantic thing, I like that. I see a bit of that in the film Tangerine; it had classical music that had that same [sense of] drama.
FAVORITE FILM SCENE THAT I COMPOSED
Under the Skin changed my life. Literally. I got my first gray hair from that film, right in the center of my head. For me, it was probably the theme that comes out when [Scarlett Johansson’s alien character, “The Female”] enters the void. I made that as a beat very quickly. It came out of an improvisation I’ve done—a piece I made into a quick beat.
THE PIECE THAT CAME MOST NATURALLY
In Under the Skin, “Love” came pretty naturally. In Jackie, it all came kind of quickly. The end music, I had to extend that, [which] was a bit harder to do. Pablo was like, “Maybe this is as long as the piece was meant to be.” He was very accepting of that. He wasn’t like, “Make it longer and don’t call me.” He was really collaborative—I handed him things and it was really free. And if you can work like that, it’s a good thing. I think you get the best out of people.
THE MOST CHALLENGING PIECE
That’s a hard question. The ones that don’t come quickly, the ones that don’t write themselves, you get bored of them and you start to be a hater. The thing is, everyone comes up with great ideas. Everyone is full of ideas, and feelings, and moments. What makes it a job is finishing those ideas. When you’ve got to [pick] it apart, or dissect it, or just literally finish it to finish it, it dries it out; it’s so easy to kill it. That’s what you’d call the work of it. The rest of it isn’t work, I don’t think. FL