Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon is wonderful so long as you don’t overthink it. The disquieting story of a 16-year old’s entry into the self-obsessed milieu of LA’s modeling scene, it’s as nasty, blunt, and self-consciously shallow as its cast of scarily-thin characters. Like them, the film is infinitely more concerned with how it looks than it is exuding any pretense of depth. Never the best storyteller, Refn’s made a film that speaks almost primarily to the senses, not just through his vibrant, Kubrickian visuals but also through the spooky, sparkling score of Cliff Martinez.
This is Martinez’s third collaboration with Refn—he captured the zeitgeist with his score for 2011’s Drive and also worked on Refn’s divisive follow-up Only God Forgives—and also his most assertive. Where those soundtracks trafficked mainly in synth-heavy ambiance and shattering moments of dissonance, The Neon Demon’s 23 tracks are much more concerned with melody. Driving backbeats ground many of the tracks, as do infectious synth burbles and chugging trails of distortion. Some moments are strikingly pretty, others deeply unpleasant; none of it, though, is lacking in personality.
A few tracks (“Gold Paint Shoot”, “Who Wants Sour Milk”) drift quietly between the ears, but the score’s bulk feels intended to foreground rather than underscore. From the queasy, dread-inducing title track to the bouncy ‘80s pop of “Messenger Walks Among Us” to the oscillating madness of “Runway”, the score routinely posits itself as a standalone entity rather than a cinematic accompaniment. That’s not a bad thing: The Neon Demon benefits from the dominance of its sensory elements, especially considering the inelegance of the film’s dialogue and characterizations.
John Carpenter is an obvious influence—it’s impossible not to draw threads to his Lost Themes records—but there’s something delightfully intergalactic about Martinez’s work here. The Neon Demon isn’t sci-fi, but you’d be forgiven for thinking it was after hearing the score. Clouds of pixelated stardust seem to blow across a number of the tracks, their feather-light tinkling evoking a beauty that’s striking but all sharp edges. Truly, there’s very few round edges here; broken glass floats in the air of nearly every song. Even the moments of calm are discomfiting, a feeling you’re also likely to sense when watching the movie.
The soundtrack also includes a few original pop songs, one from Sia (“Waving Goodbye”) and another (“Mine”) from Sweet Tempest, the dream-pop band that counts Refn’s nephew Julian as a member. The latter is a much better fit, as it resembles Martinez’s score in both tone and instrumentation. “Waving Goodbye”, on the other hand, is a curious addition. It’s a fine pop song—layered, rousing, and catchy—but, on record and on screen, it feels far too sunny and sanitized beside both Martinez’s score and Refn’s atmosphere. Perhaps its sheen is a comment on the film’s superficiality, but if so it’s a jarring one.
As with their previous collaborations, The Neon Demon soundtrack provides further evidence that Martinez and Refn are artistic soulmates. This score, in particular, is so integral to the completion of Refn’s vision and the power of his visuals. What’s so delightfully surprising is how, unlike most scores, it functions so well as a standalone piece of music. There’s enough melody and drive here to underscore a shindig or at least a lazy night getting stoned on the couch. Martinez told Vanity Fair that Refn longs to “make a silent film dominated by wall-to-wall music,” and I’ll be damned if that doesn’t sound like the best use of both their talents.
Essential Tracks: “The Neon Demon”, “Messenger Walks Among Us”, and “Runaway”