STRANGER THINGS – Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
Nostalgia for the 1980s appears to have peaked during the summer of 2016. Mainstream films, TV shows, and their musical accompaniments are all relishing their trips down amnesia lane, digging up thirty years worth of long-forgotten pop culture references, busting out with outdated lingo, and embracing the questionable fashion choices that defined the decade. Children’s adventure movies were especially popular in the 1980s, and it is that sub-genre that the Netflix original series Stranger Things lovingly emulates. Set in suburban Indiana in 1983, the show begins with the disappearance of a 12-year-old boy named Will Byers (Noah Schnapp); as his mother Joyce (Winona Ryder) panics, the local police department led by Sheriff Jim Hopper (David Harbour) begins a formal investigation. Meanwhile, Will’s nerdy Dungeons-and-Dragons-playing friends (Finn Wolfhard, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin) begin their own investigation – and before long the boys are knee-deep in an extraordinary mystery involving top-secret government experiments, terrifying supernatural forces, and a strange little girl named Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) who appears to display psychokinetic abilities.
The creators of Stranger Things, brothers Matt Duffer and Ross Duffer, intentionally drowned their show in 1980s pop culture, referencing the works of artists such as Steven Spielberg, Stephen King, and John Carpenter, and crafting homages to literally dozens of period movies, ranging from beloved classics like E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial and The Goonies, to Stand By Me, Firestarter, Alien, Carrie, Altered States, and even Close Encounters of the Third Kind. These references aren’t oblique, either; they’re sort of the point. The whole show is a love letter to the movies, to the writers and directors they loved growing up, and it shows in every single frame. This extends directly into the music, too, which was written and performed by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein of the Austin, Texas-based experimental synth quartet SURVIVE.
There were really two schools of thought for film scoring in the early 1980s: one was the huge, theme-filled orchestral route characterized by the legendary work of composers like John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, James Horner, Alan Silvestri, Bruce Broughton, and others, and which is still well-loved today. The other was the electronic route, which comprised pretty much anything written by John Carpenter, Brad Fiedel, Harold Faltermeyer, Jack Nitzsche, Jan Hammer, Tangerine Dream, or Giorgio Moroder, and it is this sound that the composers of Stranger Things adopted for the show. In talking about the concept behind their score, Dixon and Stein said “The directors were previously fans of SURVIVE. They used a song from our first LP in a trailer they made to pitch their concept to Netflix, and once the show was picked up, they reached out to see if we were available to score the show. We discussed having a classic tone and feel to the music for the show, being reserved enough that it wasn’t ‘80s cheese’, while offering a refreshing quality that felt modern. This was one of the qualities that drew them to our music in the first place; having a familiarity with classic synths worked, but with an overall forward-thinking approach.”
The 1980s synth sound certainly has its admirers, and many iconic movies of the era were scored that way, but looking back on it today it remains very much a snapshot specific to that era. The sound had pretty much run its course by the end of the decade, and quickly fell out of fashion, and for a long time was considered one of the worst things about 1980s film music. However, many of today’s young directors are going out of their way to re-capture the sound of their own childhood in the films they are making – as is the case with Stranger Things. To give them all the credit they deserve, Dixon and Stein nailed the acoustics perfectly. I’m not well-versed enough in synth technology to know exactly what sort of electronic instrument I’m listening to, but to my ears they sound about as authentic as they are possible to be. If I didn’t know otherwise, I could easily be convinced that this music was from the period – it’s that good at emulating the sound, tone, and feel of the genre. However, as good a starting point as this is, once you get beyond the perfect authenticity of the sound, Stranger Things falls apart very quickly.
The problem, really, is that Dixon and Stein are not dramatic composers; they haven’t got the experience or sensibility necessary to take their perfect sound design, and craft it into an actual score. The storytelling narrative of the music in Stranger Things is virtually zero – yet again, as I have written far too many times before this year, it’s all surface sheen, with no depth. This is what sets those 1980s composers apart from people like Dixon and Stein. Harold Faltermeyer knew how to write a memorable theme, as in Beverly Hills Cop. Brad Fiedel understood the concept of recurring thematic ideas that drive the dramatic arc of a story, as in The Terminator. Jack Nitzsche knew how to subtly alter the tone of a single theme to convey different emotions, as in Starman. Dixon and Stein do not appear to have grasped any of this. I suspect that the vast majority of their music is actually needle-dropped – that they wrote a whole bunch of non-scene-specific music for the Duffer Brothers prior to editing, who then just placed it where they felt it worked best, like a song, with no real thought about recurring themes, or an overall musical architecture for the piece. If this is the case, then it’s a terribly poor decision on their part, because in doing so they basically do the exact opposite of all the scores they wanted to emulate. Simply sounding like an 80s synth score on the surface is not enough; you have to have the same grasp of narrative as they did.
Compositionally, too, Dixon and Stein appear to be severely lacking when compared to their predecessors. Far too much of the score is just ambient nothingness: a series of noises that merely break the silence, rather than actually having a clear purpose and something to say. The main theme, “Stranger Things,” is little more than a series of chords and pulses with no actual melody attached. It sounds like the extended intro to something that Tangerine Dream would have written, but which cuts off before the memorable part kicks in. It’s also entirely absent from the rest of the score: it never appears once in any other cue, as far as I can tell, which again goes entirely against the 1980s film music sensibility they were apparently trying to convey. John Carpenter knew that his theme from Halloween was the backbone of his score; it’s how you knew you were watching Halloween. The theme from Stranger Things could be anything – it’s not strong enough to develop a true identity of its own.
One or two cues do stand out, raising the interest with an interesting texture, a notable rhythmic idea, or a slightly different tonal approach. “Kids” and “Biking to School” are lighter, playful, with a more optimistic melody and bubbly pulse effects. “Nancy and Barb” has a friendly, mischievous tone. “This Isn’t You” has a dreamy, melancholic aspect. “One Blink For Yes” has watery, ghostly, other-worldly textures that convey a sense of relief. “Photos In the Woods” has a sampled sound that sounds like a hum of a Star Wars lightsaber crossed with the buzz of a pair of hair clippers. “Hanging Lights” is a little livelier, with a sampled guitar element and a new rhythmic idea that picks up some pace and gives the entire thing a brief kick in the butt. “Agents” is more aggressive, with an insistent Terminator-esque rhythm that is quite effective. The end of “No Weapons,” after an interminable build up, has 20 seconds of revelation, before reverting to form. “She’ll Kill You” has a bold, forceful percussion base that conveys a purposeful attitude, and is one of the better cues in the entire score.
The rest however, are forgettable, little more than layers of electronic pulses and rhythms atop a bed of drones. It’s all very disappointing, and quickly becomes tiresome to sit through. The music for “Eleven,” the little girl whose appearance is key to unlocking the mystery, initially has a vaguest hint of Close Encounters about it, with its staccato synth pulses and simple melodic idea, but it never develops much further beyond these basic building blocks, when a strong identity for this cornerstone character would have anchored her at the core of the show. Similarly, the music for “The Upside Down,” the horrific netherworld at the heart of the story, is boring and unimaginative, just a series of extended tones overlaid with moans and groans and distorted whole notes. Amusingly, the conclusive “Hawkins Lab” reverberates like my washing machine on its last spin cycle.
I am honestly, truly, at a loss to explain the popularity of the Stranger Things soundtrack amongst the ‘wider public’. Yes, it’s attached to a popular and nostalgia-soaked show and, yes, it does have a specific sound that many people love; as I have mentioned already, Dixon and Stein have succeeded admirably at mimicking the sonic template laid before them by their predecessors. But, for all those people praising this, have you all forgotten what it was that made those 80s synth scores great? It wasn’t just the sound palette – it was everything else beyond that, everything else that Stranger Things lacks. When you examine the actual composition of the score, it’s severely lacking in the things necessary for a score to build a narrative arc through the story. When you compare it to some of the other 80s throwback synth scores written this year – Cliff Martinez’s Neon Demon, Matthew Margeson’s Eddie the Eagle, Rob Simonsen’s Nerve, the scores for Swiss Army Man and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, for example – its deficiencies are thrown into sharp relief, and I can’t help but wonder what a better dramatic composer or two would have done with a similar stylistic approach.
Note: This album is the first volume of two soundtracks featuring music from Stranger Things; the content of the second volume has yet to be announced but, in addition to the score, it’s worth mentioning the absolutely wonderful song soundtrack Netflix somehow had the money to license. It features a number of classic songs from the era, including “Should I Stay or Should I Go” by The Clash (an important plot element in the show), “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane, “Africa” by Toto, “Hazy Shade of Winter” by The Bangles, “I Melt With You” by Modern English, “Waiting For a Girl Like You” by Foreigner, and many others. For me, the song soundtrack actually outshines the score in evoking the mood and sound of the period, and I hope Vol.2 concentrates more on them than the score.
Buy the Stranger Things soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Stranger Things (1:08)
- Kids (2:39)
- Nancy and Barb (1:06)
- This Isn’t You (2:24)
- Lay-Z-Boy (1:35)
- Friendship (1:13)
- Eleven (3:16)
- A Kiss (1:26)
- Castle Byers (2:48)
- Hawkins (5:01)
- The Upside Down (5:08)
- After Sarah (1:26)
- One Blink For Yes (1:48)
- Photos In the Woods (4:33)
- Fresh Blood (1:17)
- Lamps (1:16)
- Hallucinations (1:37)
- Hanging Lights (1:34)
- Biking To School (0:45)
- Are You Sure? (2:27)
- Agents (0:51)
- Papa (1:28)
- Cops Are Good At Finding (1:09)
- No Weapons (3:25)
- Walking Through the Upside Down (1:20)
- She’ll Kill You (2:06)
- Run Away (1:48)
- No Autopsy (1:04)
- Dispatch (0:42)
- Joyce and Lonnie Fighting (1:03)
- Lights Out (1:05)
- Hazmat Suits (1:44)
- Theoretically (1:34)
- You Can Talk To Me (0:54)
- What Else Is There To Do? (2:00)
- Hawkins Lab (2:38)
Running Time: 69 minutes 01 seconds
Lakeshore Records (2016)
Music composed and arranged by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein. Edited by David Klotz. Album produced by Brian McNelis, Skip Willamson, Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein.