JACKIE – Mica Levi
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
Jackie is an acclaimed biopic directed by Pablo Larraín, which looks at the life of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, the first lady of the United States, in the immediate aftermath of the assassination of her husband, President John F. Kennedy, in November 1963. The film stars Natalie Portman in the lead role, features Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup and John Hurt in supporting roles, and has been the recipient of a great deal of critical praise, mostly for Portman’s dazzling central performance, but also for its score by British composer and songwriter Mica Levi.
I’m going to be clear here and say that I’m reviewing the score for Jackie without having seen the film, but in this instance I think that’s OK, because neither has Levi. She is one of that new breed of composers who, for some reason, thinks it’s perfectly reasonable to write the score for a film without seeing it beforehand. Before anyone jumps in with corrections and criticisms, of course I need to point out that many other composers have done this too in the past: from Sergei Prokofiev on Alexander Nevsky, to more contemporary composers like Ennio Morricone and Hans Zimmer, there have been numerous instances where composers have written music for films prior to them being shot, based on impressions of the screenplay, or conversations with the director, or other things. There is no one right way or wrong way to score a film, and many approaches are valid, but the thing about Mica Levi is that, based on interviews with her I have read and comments she has made, she actually seems to have a bizarre disdain for the filmmaking process.
In a post-screening discussion with Ashley Irwin of the Society of Composers and Lyricists last year, Levi flatly stated that she goes out of her way not to see the film she is ‘scoring’ because doing so interferes with her creative process. In response to this, I will counter by saying, in that case, she is not actually a film composer. Her music is not collaborative; she may have received some basic information from the director (“it’s a film about Jackie Kennedy”), but beyond that, Levi’s contribution to the film is to then simply go away and write some instrumentals which the director then drops into the film where he wants them. There is no regard for pacing or editing, no regard for cinematography, no collaboration with the sound designers and sound editors to enhance or work with what they are doing. There is no way she is able to bring out any particular nuances from the screenplay or the performances because she hasn’t seen them. There is no way she can enhance a particular moment in the film, or bring out any subtext, because she doesn’t know when they occur, and doesn’t know what the subtext is. She’s not a storyteller, the way the best film composers are; she is, at best, a musician who writes orchestral pieces that then happen to be used in a film.
It doesn’t help either that I think Levi’s music is, on the whole, awful too. As she showed with both this score and with Under the Skin, Levi is a minimalist composer at heart, and her music uses the smallest gestures, the tiniest inflections, as if she fears that doing anything more than this will somehow break the audience. The soundtrack album contains 14 cues, running for just over half an hour, and maintains a mostly consistent tone and instrumental palette throughout the entire score. The work is dominated by strings, with the only additional timbres coming from a solo flute, occasional piano, a snare drum, and a marimba. Texturally, the score is built mainly around tremolos and sustains, the strings wavering and vibrating constantly with an agitated sense of motion.
Only in a couple of cues does Levi alter this stylistic. In the opening “Intro” she introduces a drunken-sounding, slurred, descending string motif, which reappears later in “Lee Harvey Oswald.” “Children” is built around a morose, see-sawing, hypnotic cello motif overlaid with faint woodwind textures. In “Autopsy” she embraces some discordant writing that shifts a two-note idea around between the violin, the cello, and the flute, offset by little trills on a snare drum. The snare drum licks return again in “Graveyard,” which also features some stark, bare piano chords. “Empty White House” is little more than a set of repeated dissonant string chords, built around a single recurring note, with vague hints of something funereal. “Walk to the Capitol” and “Vanity” feature some slightly warmer string writing, although again the cues comprise little more than simple repeated chords passed around the string section, with the exception of some lightly trilling flutes in the latter. The conclusive “Credits” is a real peculiarity, a curious, oddly toned combination of marimba, strings and flute, which feels strangely disconnected from the entire rest of the score.
Unfortunately, this lack of any real change in pacing or tone or emotional content renders the score completely sterile, which is something that Jackie Kennedy was not. I understand the nature of grief, and one could say that the score successfully depicts that overwhelming emotion in the wake of JFK’s death. But Jackie was also resilient. She was hopeful, and helped the country heal with her own strength and determination. She was classy and graceful. She was patriotic, and showed fierce love, not just for her country, but for her children too, who needed their mother more than ever after their father’s demise. Levi’s music depicts precisely none of this; anyone listening to this music would assume that Jackie wallowed in despair and misery for the rest of her life after these events, and probably committed suicide too. It is, quite frankly, terrible.
Of course, the score for Jackie has been roundly praised by indie film critics, and numerous offbeat websites, which is to be expected; anything that is quiet, unobtrusive, shows little to no emotion, goes against the grain of ‘conventional’ film music, and is written by a hipster pop artist, is lauded to high heaven in those circles. What I don’t understand is the praise Levi has received, both for this score and for her previous work Under the Skin, from within the industry. It’s absolutely baffling to me that other film composers and filmmakers have now collectively nominated her for two BAFTA Awards and an Oscar. This praise has come despite the fact that she is, to me, making a mockery of their entire craft. And, I’ll say this now: for the most part, I hate this approach. Once in a while it works – it worked with Zimmer on Interstellar, it worked with Morricone on The Hateful Eight – but, from my point of view, film scoring should be as much about the advancement of a dramatic arc as it is about the creation of technically excellent music, and Levi’s steadfast refusal to even make herself aware of what her film’s dramatic arc actually is renders her music entirely pointless.
Buy the Jackie soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Intro (1:26)
- Children (3:20)
- Car (0:23)
- Tears (0:53)
- Autopsy (2:39)
- Empty White House (2:58)
- Graveyard (3:10)
- Lee Harvey Oswald (1:58)
- Walk To The Capitol (2:43)
- Vanity (2:59)
- Decision Made (0:33)
- Burial (2:33)
- The End (5:14)
- Credits (3:14)
Running Time: 34 minutes 05 seconds
Milan Records (2016)
Music composed Mica Levi. Conducted by Ben Foster. Orchestrations by Jessica Dannheisser. Recorded and mixed by Steve Price. Edited by Lewis Morison and Sebastián Sepúlveda. Album produced by Mica Levi.