THE NICE GUYS – John Ottman and David Buckley
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
A comedy crime thriller written and directed by Shane Black, The Nice Guys stars Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling as Healy and March, a pair of private detectives in Los Angeles in the late 1970s who become embroiled in a labyrinthine plot involving a dead porn star, the missing daughter of a local politician, sinister hit men, and the Detroit auto industry, all set against a backdrop of sex, drugs, and disco. The film also stars Matt Bomer, Kim Basinger, and the wonderfully spunky Angourie Rice as Gosling’s unfazeable 14-year-old-daughter; it moves along at a breezy clip, combining buddy-movie action with a healthy helping of humor, while the nostalgic setting allows director Black to luxuriate in the Los Angeles of his childhood, when large parts of it were still sleazy and seedy. Contributing enormously to the period atmosphere is the disco-jazz score by composers John Ottman and David Buckley, Ottman having worked on Black’s directorial debut Kiss Kiss Bang Bang in 2005.
John Ottman is not known for his work as a jazz composer – only the aforementioned Kiss Kiss Bang Bang really comes anywhere near that genre – while David Buckley is most well known for his classically-inflected work on the TV series The Good Wife, so it is perhaps a little surprising to discover just how authentic The Nice Guys sounds. The fingerprints of 1970s jazz composers like Lalo Schifrin and Don Ellis are all over the score, which revels in the sound of funk-inflected guitars, bass flutes, sultry trumpets, and disco beats, and which are in turn accompanied by a contemporary orchestral ensemble to enhance the score’s emotional depth.
The score’s main theme is the “Theme from The Nice Guys,” which seeks to encapsulate the unlikely camaraderie between Crowe and Gosling’s characters. Regarding the main theme, Ottman said, “It’s not too long before Healy and March meet up in the film, so it made sense for the Nice Guys theme to encompass them as a duo and to write different renditions of the theme when they’re together as much as possible.” He continues, “Joel Silver called me before shooting began, asking for a theme that reminded us of classic cop or spy 70s TV shows and movies. I wrote a balls-out theme for full orchestra, but the challenge for David Buckley and me was adapting the theme into a score that kept the film fun and quirky without feeling too silly.”
Ottman’s instincts for the theme were spot on, and it proves to be one of the most enjoyable thematic creations of the 51-year-old’s music career. After the expansive arrangement in the opening cue it plays in several cues thereafter, including a dirty-sounding electric guitar and bass flute version in “Kids Today,” a more laid back and sultry variation in “Pornocchio,” the funky “You Got Her/Easy 20,” and the conclusive pair “Follow the Yellow Dick Road” and “P. I. Life”. The chicka-chicka effects in the guitars, the tapped hi-hat cymbals, and the occasional use of a Hammond organ, give it a real sense of time and place that enormously increases the film’s authenticity. You can imagine this music fitting seamlessly into a film like The French Connection; it’s pastiche, clearly, a blatant attempt to emulate the particular sound of an era, but when it’s done this well you can easily overlook its intentional lack of originality.
A secondary theme, emphasizing the sense of mystery and uncertainty surrounding the whereabouts of the porn star and the politician’s daughter, is heard during “A Little Favor,” and in “Car Crash,” again with a prominent bass flute element, albeit with a dreamier, even vaguely romantic, edge. There’s even a surprisingly solemn cello-led lament in the early part of “Helping Blue Face,” unexpectedly helping to humanize the scarred assassin sent to hinder Crowe and Gosling’s investigations.
Elsewhere, cues like “Disco Party Fight,” the second half of “Chet in the Dumps,” and especially “Meeting John Boy” and “Car Show Shoot Out” are much grittier, with tense string sustains and electronic pulses giving way to more rapid-fire rhythmic sequences to underpin the action. Some of the percussion patterns Ottman and Buckley employ in these cues are fiendishly complicated, while the electric guitar licks and muted trumpets add flavor to the mix. Not only that, in several of these action sequences Ottman and Buckley insert deconstructed statements of the Nice Guys theme low down in the mix, keeping the two protagonists firmly at the center of the musical story. The heroic, yet slightly relieved-sounding trumpet refrain at the end of “Car Show Shoot Out” is especially satisfying.
Exponents of 1970s crime caper, jazz, and blaxploitation scores – especially any of the ones by the composers I mentioned earlier – will find The Nice Guys to be an entertaining and authentic throwback to that era, with period-appropriate orchestration, and a similar sense of fun teetering on the edge of danger. Intentional pastiches like these are often difficult to pull off correctly, as the composer runs the danger of sounding like a pale imitation of the sound he’s trying to emulate and pay homage to, but thankfully the skill John Ottman and David Buckley show here keeps them from falling into that trap. It’s a breezy, exciting, energetic throwback, and a breath of fresh air in 2016.
Buy the Nice Guys soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Theme from The Nice Guys (2:01)
- Kids Today (3:24)
- Disco Party Fight (4:00)
- To the Car Show/Amelia? (1:36)
- Pornocchio (2:23)
- A Little Favor (2:52)
- Equanimity (2:01)
- Chet in the Dumps (2:04)
- You Got Her/Easy 20 (1:37)
- Helping Blue Face/Car Crash (3:11)
- Meeting John Boy (3:26)
- It’s Not a Flight (2:01)
- Cars That Drive Themselves (1:46)
- YooHoo Delivery/Breaking In (2:10)
- Car Show Shoot Out (4:42)
- Follow the Yellow Dick Road (1:43)
- P.I. Life (1:49)
- Flight of the Bumble Bee/The Right Thing to Do (BONUS TRACK) (0:55)
Running Time: 43 minutes 41 seconds
Lakeshore Records (2016)
Music composed by John Ottman and David Buckley. Conducted by Allan Wilson. Performed by The Slovak Symphony Orchestra. Orchestrations by Nolan Livesay, Jason Lively and Daniel Semsen. Featured musical soloists Tal Bergman, Michael White, Hugh Marsh, James Harrah, Anthony Lledo and Chris Chaney. Recorded and mixed by Casey Stoneand Martin Roller. Edited by Amanda Goodpaster. Score produced by John Ottman and David Buckley. Album produced by Joel Silver, Shane Black, Skip Williamson and Brian McNelis.