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KIMI – Cliff Martinez

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

I was initially disappointed to learn that Kimi is not a biopic of the Formula 1 driver Kimi Räikkönen, but is instead a new techno-thriller from director Steven Soderbergh. It’s essentially a new spin on the trope of someone witnessing an apparent crime from afar, but when the witness tries to report the crime they are met with disbelief from the authorities. The whole thing began with Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window back in 1954, and has seen a resurgence of late through films such as Disturbia, Gone Girl, and last year’s The Woman in the Window. Zoe Kravitz stars as Angela, a tech expert with agoraphobia who works for a company that makes ‘Kimi,’ a smart home appliance similar to Siri and Alexa. Part of Angela’s job is to monitor the voice commands given to Kimi by its users, ostensibly to improve the device’s search algorithm; however, when Angela apparently discovers recorded evidence of the murder of a Kimi user, she tries to report it to her superiors – and quickly finds her own life in danger as a result.

The score for Kimi is by composer Cliff Martinez, whose relationship with Steven Soderbergh dates all the way back to 1989 and the movie Sex, Lies, and Videotape, and now encompasses more than a dozen films including The Limey, Traffic, Solaris, and Contagion. Much of the music Martinez has composed for Soderbergh over the years is based in the world of ambient electronica, but Kimi is different – it has a very unexpected sound which embellishes his usual electronic palette with a lot of traditional orchestrations. In the words of my friend and fellow reviewer Vikram Lakhanpal: it’s as though Soderberg’s instructions to Martinez were ‘make it Hitchcock, but make it sci-fi”.

As such, much of the sound of Kimi is clearly emulating the music of Bernard Herrmann. Martinez uses his strings to create an atmosphere of mystery and unease that is really effective, while the accompanying tones of breathy woodwinds, harps, and marimbas really add to the score’s stylish soundscape. Several of the cues even start to edge into film noir romanticism, which is something I would have never expected from Martinez, whose history with film music does not immediately suggest an aptitude for that sound, but he succeeds at it nonetheless. It’s perhaps worth mentioning that the score is conducted and orchestrated by Randy Miller, a terrific composer in his own right, whose credits includes films such as The Soong Sisters, Darkman II: The Return of Durant, Hellraiser III: Hell On Earth, Pirates of the Plain, and the 2004 TV mini-series Spartacus.

The score is mostly built around a recurring theme for Angela, a see-sawing two-note motif that is introduced in the opening cue “You’re Right Dr. Burns,” and is strongly prominent in most cues thereafter. The instrumentation of Angela’s theme is usually a combination of strings and woodwinds, phrased in a slow and mysterious way with heavy vibrato to add to the atmosphere of the piece, and with added percussive textures featuring chimes, marimbas, and other ‘twinkling’ sounds. Almost every cue features the theme in some form or another, as Angela is essentially the sole focus of the film for the first hour: she is apartment-bound, trapped due to both her traumatic agoraphobia, and as a result of the film’s in-context COVID restrictions, which form a part of the film’s plot but are not its primary driver. Once in a while the music for Angela becomes almost overtly romantic, especially in the scenes involving Angela’s next door neighbor and occasional sexual hookup Trevor, which come via cues such as “You’re Supposed to Buzz”.

Of course, with this being a Martinez score, there is plenty of electronica too, and it is mostly used to further illustrate the hi-tec world that Angela inhabits, specifically the omnipresent Kimi and its tech giant creator, Amygdala. The Kimi motif is a bubbly texture that permeates the background of many cues; I described it as having a ‘bleepy-bloopy wet farty’ quality, which is probably a little uncharitable, but you’ll understand what I mean when you hear it – it features prominently in cues such as “Watch the Spray” and “Do You Have a Bathroom,” among many others.

A related motif for the villains of the piece – a set of ruthless goons hired by an Amygdala exec to permanently cover up what Angela knows – appears later in the score. Cues such as “Crime & Safety Issue,” “Return of Max Volume,” “Does That Sound Good,” “Lean Into Scanner,“ “Bad Guys Chase Angela,” and others, are significant instances of this – nervous and shrill woodwind textures that set the teeth on edge and convey an atmosphere of unease and paranoia.

In each of these cues the secondary motifs usually play alongside and in counterpoint with Angela’s motif, creating an overall sound that blends the acoustic with the synthetic, the warm with the calculating, and the human with the clearly robotic. It’s a nice way of illustrating one of the central points of David Koepp’s screenplay – that, no matter how sophisticated technology gets, it will never be a replacement for humanity. This all builds up to the climax of the film, “I Just Got Stabbed Walks Among Us,” which sees both the Kimi motif and the villains motif coming together with Angela’s theme, amid a more energetic string ostinato – the closest the film comes to having an action sequence.

This final statement is perhaps the one thing that may prove to be a negative for some listeners, and that’s the consistency of tone. There are no big action sequences in Kimi, no fight or chase scenes, no moments where Martinez lets loose with an orchestra in an overt way. Instead, the entire score has a slow, quiet, subdued tone that is careful with its emotions, and this may lull people into a sense of monotony or, worse, boredom. I personally didn’t feel that way, but I can certainly foresee that some people may listen to this, wait for 30 minutes, and then wonder why nothing happened.

Ultimately, and much to my own surprise, I liked the score for Kimi quite a lot. My past experiences with Cliff Martinez’s music have not been especially positive – I liked parts of Arbitrage, The Limey, and The Lincoln Lawyer, and I can see the appeal of things like Drive and The Neon Demon even if they are not my personal cup of tea – but there is something sophisticated about Kimi that really captured my attention. The neo-noir allusions to Bernard Herrmann are of course the score’s biggest selling points, but the way Martinez handles the electronic sound palette such that it complements the orchestra is impressive.

Buy the Kimi soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • You’re Right Dr. Burns (0:59)
  • Angela Tries to Leave (2:04)
  • You’re Supposed to Buzz (0:42)
  • Crime & Safety Issue (1:28)
  • You’re Right Again Dr. Burns (0:58)
  • Return of Max Volume (1:26)
  • Watch the Spray (1:21)
  • Does That Sound Good? (3:10)
  • Lean Into Scanner (1:41)
  • Do You Have a Bathroom? (1:46)
  • Bad Guys Chase Angela (2:22)
  • FBI Field Office (0:42)
  • Where Can We Do It? (1:47)
  • It’s On Your Buzzer (2:00)
  • KIMI Max Volume (1:16)
  • I Just Got Stabbed Walks Among Us (2:00)
  • Do You Hear Me Angela? (1:07)

Running Time: 26 minutes 58 seconds

Watertower Music (2021)

Music composed by Cliff Martinez. Conducted by Randy Miller. Orchestrations by Randy Miller. Recorded and mixed by Laurence Anslow. Edited by Mark Jan Wlodarkiewicz. Album produced by Cliff Martinez.

  1. teacher8007
    March 1, 2022 at 9:53 am

    The main motif as sounding in the first track, sounds like THE SHIP from Bernard Herrmann’ s TORN CURTAIN. Surely a masterful stroke, whose variations aplenty in the rest of the score (along some instrumental touches ala Fahrenheit 451) gives it its poignant character.

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