Home > Reviews > JACKIE – Mica Levi

JACKIE – Mica Levi

January 27, 2017 Leave a comment Go to comments

jackieOriginal 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

Track Listing:

  • 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.

Categories: Reviews Tags: , , ,
  1. January 27, 2017 at 11:28 pm

    Scoring a film without ever seeing it is crazy. Another nail in the coffin for the art of film scoring. What is happening in Hollywood these days, they will be shooting films without scripts next…

    The image is intrinsic to the music and the music intrinsic to the image, its all part of the alchemy that is the film-viewing experience. Imagine Vangelis scoring Blade Runner having never seen Ridley Scotts powerful visuals or John Wiliams scoring Star Wars just from the script. Crazy.

    • January 28, 2017 at 12:44 am

      Actually, they already DID shoot movies without a script, “Transformers 2” for example.

      As for the score, I can’t believe that this dreck gets nominated for an oscar while brilliant fitting music like Dario Marianelli’s “Kubo” or James Newton Howard’s “Fantastic Beasts” doesn’t. I truly hate the academy for this and it makes me loose the little of respect I still had for them. Being nominated for an oscar means nothing now, that is by this point, without a doubt, finally clear.

      • Michael
        January 29, 2017 at 8:21 pm

        Hate? It’s not like they were going to award you. It makes me laugh how film music fans act like if the Academy should award the same scores they like. They always award films that critics like,regardless of the public. It was always like that with best director, actress, actor, so it goes the same with best score. And I think there are things in life more important than being angry and hateful for that.

      • January 30, 2017 at 12:08 am

        I’m sorry, it really bugs me. Of course there are more important things but it is just not right that something this uninspired, created with a prooven disrespect for the craft, gets this much praise. Just my thoughts, but the other composers mentioned here at least have enough talent and respect to be able to compose that way. It is the same reason I don’t like Resznor and Ross. I think it is shameful that people like that get rewarded this way.

      • Jonathan Broxton
        January 30, 2017 at 12:19 am

        I agree with you Lasse.

      • January 30, 2017 at 12:24 am

        Thank you very much, Jonathan. I love your work and reading your opinions, even though I sometimes don’t agree with them. This case, however, shows that there is something truly wrong with the craft nowadays, even though we still get a lot of great scores.

    • Michael
      January 29, 2017 at 8:18 pm

      The whole last 15 minutes of E.T. had the film being edited to fit Williams’s music. Morricone and Zimmer wrote lots of scores before watching the film. Stranger Things’s score was written before the shooting and it actually helped to cast the actors of the show and it was used during the shooting. Same thing with Gustavo Santaolalla and Tyler Bates. It’s nothing new, it’s another method of writing music

      • Tiago
        February 1, 2017 at 5:56 am

        Yeah, I guess you’re right. Indeed, the Academy doesn’t care for what some guy from Brazil (which is my case) thinks about their choices. If they say that Jackie and Moonlight are two of the best scores of 2016, instead of James Newton Howard’s Fantastic Beasts or Alexandre Desplat’s The Light Between the Oceans, I’ll have to just accept that. If they say that The Social Network is the very best score of 2010, or that Finding Neverland’s score is better than The Village and The Prisoner of Azkaban, well, I shall remain silent and accept that. Because everything the Academy says or does is correct, and it can’t be contested.

        As you can probably tell right now, I was being sarcastic. In fact, I’m used with the Academy’s poor choices in Best Original Score category, but this year they were particulaly terrible. Yeah, La La Land is decent and pretty, but I agree with Jon on his opinions about the inexplicably nominated Lion, Jackie and Moonlight. And there’s Passengers too, which is fine, but only got nominated because it’s Thomas Newman and because Sony spent way too much on this movie to not see it grab some nominations, despite of all the criticisms.

  2. January 28, 2017 at 1:22 am

    Spot on again Jon.
    I shoved this under the carpet to join the rest of minimalistic and boring soundscapes with which more and more movies tend to be filled in Hollywood. After a few tracks I was bored enough to know I will not add it to my database for Screensoundradio.

  3. Michael
    January 29, 2017 at 8:05 pm

    I saw the movie. Except for a couple of cues, the rest of the cues used in the movie did fit on it and brought an aire of despair and sadness. The fact that regular public are praising this score is another proof of how out of touch is film music community. When are they going to understand? Why people keep bashing new talents for bringing freshness to film music? The music is experimental, it’s not supposed to be the best score of the world.

    If the Academy wants to nominate a score like this because of its impact on the film or the popularity of the film, it’s not the composer’s fault. Attacking a young new talent with a review like that (and especially a young woman who actually keeps the art of orchestral scoring alive and popular to regular audiences) is truly shameful. Likewise with the comments up there.

    Film has no rules, and like that, film music shouldn’t have any rules. Complaining about scores like Jackie, Stranger Things (Which is still popular) and others for being different ain’t no different from producers asking composers to write scores like Hans Zimmer or John Williams. It’s the same mentality of denying the new to keep the old.

    • Jonathan Broxton
      January 29, 2017 at 8:54 pm

      Yonathan, you appear to have missed the point of my review entirely. But, considering its you, I’m not surprised at all.

    • September 5, 2017 at 5:37 am

      This score for Jackie and the nomination is nonsense!!!!

  4. Tony Miranda
    January 30, 2017 at 9:36 am

    Imagine what Abel Korzeniowski or Alexandre Desplat could have done for this movie.

  5. February 1, 2017 at 7:46 am

    Out of curiosity, If you don’t consider Mica Levi a film composer, then why are you reviewing this? Is it film music or isn’t it? You have to be consistent, I feel. I personally don’t understand why you think that it’s unnecessary for YOU to see the film. I don’t care what the composer’s process is. At the end of the day, regardless of the fact that she has “disdain” for the filmmaking process, she wrote the music knowing that it would end up in a film, so I would imagine that that does indeed affect some of her musical decisions. It’s why she didn’t right a synth-pop score, or Gregorian chant. There is some degree of logic utilized in her writing. In the end – for better or for worse – the music would not exist without the movie, and that should count for something. So, in a sense, you have a duty to watch the film and allow the music’s placement in the film to affect your opinion of the score. You’ve gone as far as suggesting that Mica Levi ins’t a film composer. The implication there is that this isn’t actually film music. I would disagree with you on this. So, I’ll ask again, why bother reviewing it on your soundtrack site if you don’t feel it’s film music? If you keep your review on here then you admit that your comment about her not being a film composer is unfair. If you feel that she is indeed NOT (sigh) a film composer, then you have to do something about this review, like, I don’t know, disown it… Which one is it?

  6. February 6, 2017 at 4:32 am

    Come on, how this was nominated? What a poor year for scores!

  7. September 5, 2017 at 5:40 am

    I can´t believe how Lion, Moonlight and Jackie were nominated for Oscars!!! La La Land won, correctly, but the other nominees were nonsense. Lion is the most overrated score ever! Too much repetitive!!

  8. ryan
    May 26, 2018 at 8:17 pm

    just watched the film with friends.
    we immediate went to stream the whole soundtrack.
    i have never heard music like this.

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