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LOOPER – Nathan Johnson

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Looper is a high-concept science fiction action movie, directed by Rian Johnson and starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis and Emily Blunt. The film takes the concept of time-travel and mixes it with organized crime; in the future, when the mob wants to take someone out, they use the newly invented but highly illegal time-travel technology to send someone back in time, whereupon they are immediately killed by a Looper – an assassin in the past. Joe (Gordon-Levitt) is one such looper, and is good at his job – until he realizes that his latest victim, just sent back in time, is the future version of himself… Critics have called Looper one of the most intriguing science-fiction movies in several years, and young director Rian Johnson is quickly becoming heralded as a new and exciting cinematic visionary.

Providing the score for Looper is 37-year-old Colorado-born composer Nathan Johnson – the cousin of the director – who spent a great deal of time living and working in the United Kingdom in the 2000s, and is a founder member of the touring band The Cinematic Underground. Nathan made his film music debut comparatively recently, when he scored Rian’s first two films, Brick in 2005 and The Brothers Bloom in 2008, but Looper is by far his most high profile and ambitious project to date. For Looper, Johnson took a standard small orchestra, featuring mainly strings and piano, and augmented them with a massive array of sampled sounds and processed percussion effects, ranging from trash can lids, an oscillating fan, and gunfire to hammered PVC tubes and fire alarms. The end result is cacophonous, unsettling, but weirdly fascinating music that somehow manages to bring together these seemingly random and incoherent musical collisions of sounds into a propulsive, unconventional, but exciting score.

Most cues feature one or more orchestral instrumental combinations – piano and strings, strings and brass, all three – with the sampled and percussive elements laid on top to give the score its other-worldly feel. In many cues, the internal rhythm of the score is the main driving force, with melody taking a back seat to rumbling sound effects, disjointed percussive elements, and curious collisions of noises that sound jarring and alien. Cues such as the opening “A Body That Technically Does Not Exist”, the eerie “Seth’s Tale”, the relentlessly mechanical “Time Machine”, the jarring “A New Scar”, and parts of the conclusive “The Path Was a Circle” adopt this style, and are more interesting than they are enjoyable, but do establish an unusual sonic atmosphere for the score to inhabit. Some of the percussion rhythms Johnson creates are fascinating in their complexity, and show a real sense of how to drive a movie onward with insistent, vigorous forward motion.

The best cues tend to be the ones where the orchestra takes center stage, at least for a short time. Cues such as the pulsating brass blasts and string stingers of “A Day in the Life”, the dark and throbbing “Closing Your Loop”, the brooding and menacing “Run”, the thrilling “Hunting the Past”, the surprisingly romantic “Her Face”, the thunderous “City Sweep”, the crackerjack second half of “Revelations”, and the ball-busting “Showdown” have a more organic edge, despite still containing a great deal of Johnson’s processed sound effects. The level of orchestral composition heard in these cues is pretty top notch, with action music elements that don’t sound like they come from the pen of a man with less than 10 film score credits to his name.

There is a theme of sorts – a recurring piano motif that gets its first prominent outing during “A Life in a Day” and appears later in cues such as “Mining for Memories”, the unexpectedly tender and intimate opening portion of “Revelations”, the surprisingly warm and lyrical finale in “Everything Comes Around” – but generally speaking Looper is not a score that will appeal to those who need a strong thematic presence in their scores. This reason alone is why it really surprised me how much I enjoyed the electronic soundscape Johnson created, and appreciated its effectiveness in conveying a disjointed dystopian future, which is very impressive indeed.

Parts of Looper remind me of Elliot Goldenthal, especially the orchestral sections, but the samples and electronic elements seem wholly unique to me, and it’s very rare that you hear a soundtrack where the two competing elements mesh so well together. Often, when a composer tries to marry a live orchestra with a whole cache of electronic techniques and industrial textures, the result is a headache-inducing mess; Looper is different. Yes, the sounds are harsh, and sometimes seem almost obnoxiously aggressive, but the creativity and technique that went into their creation cannot be ignored. Nathan Johnson is a composer to watch.

Rating: ***½

Buy the Looper soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • A Body That Technically Does Not Exist (1:21)
  • A Day in the Life (1:10)
  • Closing Your Loop (2:56)
  • Seth’s Tale (2:54)
  • Run (2:49)
  • A Life in the Day (2:22)
  • Time Machine (2:40)
  • Hunting The Past (2:55)
  • Following the Loop (1:42)
  • Mining for Memories (1:54)
  • A New Scar (2:34)
  • Her Face (2:37)
  • City Sweep (0:46)
  • Revelations (5:12)
  • The Rainmaker (4:26)
  • La Belle Aurora (1:01)
  • Showdown (1:36)
  • The Path Was a Circle (4:51)
  • Everything Comes Around (2:41)
  • Withdrawals [BONUS] (0:32)
  • Closing Your Loop (Film Mix) [BONUS] (2:32)
  • Hobo Attack [BONUS] (1:36)
  • Thirty-Two [BONUS] (1:24)
  • Run (Film Mix) [BONUS] (3:04)
  • Commundications/City Sweep [BONUS] (Film Mix) (1:23)
  • Theme from Looper [BONUS] (Solo Piano Version) (5:28)

Running Time: 64 minutes 29 seconds

La-La Land Records LLLCD-1227 (2012)

Music composed by Nathan Johnson. Conducted by Minna Choi. Orchestrations by Son Lux and Nathan Johnson. Additional music by Son Lux, Chris Mears and Eric Dawson Tate. Recorded and mixed by Frank Wolf, Adam Munoz, Eric Dawson Tate, Alberto Hernandez and Yossi Shaked. Edited by Drew DeAscentis. Album produced by Nathan Johnson.

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  1. Felix
    March 8, 2013 at 5:20 am | #1

    Saw the movie last night and was really impressed by the music. There’s a documentary on the DVD, where Nathan Johnson explains how they created certain aspects of the score. Very interesting and fun to watch. It’s the kind of score though, that is best appreciated after seeing the film.

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