Wednesday, February 22, 2017

An Appreciation Piece for Mica Levi's "Jackie" Score

Scene from Jackie
There's a lot to love about this year's Best Original Score category. For starters, it is packed with first time nominees (and for some reason Thomas Newman for Passengers). It makes the category far more exciting than normal, and even features a variety of excellent compositions. While it does seem likely that Justin Hurwitz will win for La La Land, I want to give a quick shout out to possibly the biggest surprise nominee of the bunch: Mica Levi (Jackie). Even if I fear that she won't win, I feel that her nomination is an excellent addition to the eclectic scores that normally wouldn't be considered. In fact, it's probably my favorite from the list. 

I admit to having some personal bias towards Levi's work simply because she's two years older than me. With that said, it's easy to envy her because she is one of the most exciting up and coming composers of the past few years. Taking up a similar mantle to that of Jonny Greenwood or Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, Levi has developed a career for making "weird" scores - most notably in the sci-fi masterpiece Under the Skin. She burst onto the scene with the eerie, piercing strings that elevated the neurotic, ambiguous alien movie to new and inspired heights. It only seemed right that her next project would be weird.

In theory, director Pablo Larrain's Jackie is weird on a conceptual level. How could someone who created the sound of aliens create the sound of an American First Lady? The answer isn't necessarily clear if judged separately. She hasn't dropped any of her style for something more conventional. If anything, she implanted her weird technique to a classic score and created one of the most compelling, atmospheric soundtracks to a presidential biopic film ever. While Natalie Portman more than deserves the Best Actress nomination, it's hard to imagine Jackie with a different score. Even something more elegant would've undermined the point that was trying to be made. Therein lies the brilliance.

The opening strings to Levi's score are, at best, unnerving. This is a compliment, as it's a story that follows Jacqueline Kennedy (Portman) coming to terms with her husband's assassination. There's a lot of mythology built into the role that feels like it's falling apart. For instance, Jacqueline had an obsession with turning her time in office into a Camelot: a place of elegance and power. It's a vision that makes sense on its own, but quickly falls apart when faith in the power is destroyed. Jacqueline has to rebuild her life, and there's an insecurity that tears at her as she stares into a mirror in a blood-soaked dress. To say the least, a person who went through the events of Jackie wouldn't have the strongest disposition hours after the fact.

It is here that Levi's work begins to make more sense. Imagine if Camelot was a record being played on vinyl. It has a crisp and elegant sound at first. However, the vinyl will wear down and even bend with time. The sound will lose its elegance and what is left is a distorted record of what was. There's no getting her husband back. There is no way for the nation to return to the former self. All that's left is a distorted record that must be built into the best possible image that can be made amid tragedy. As Jacqueline suggests in the film "There won't be another Camelot." This is about as good as things will get. 

To call Levi's score nothing but bent vinyl is a bit shortsighted. The orchestration underneath the warped melodies of the strings is beautiful. It captures a sense of romanticism that the Kennedy presidency stood for. There's a wavering that comes with the melodies to emphasize Jacqueline's uneasiness at the situation. The whole thing plays conceptually to her insular motivations as a character. The melody evolves as she learns to heal and move on. There's still that occasional blip of distress, but Jackie's story of coming to terms with a lost loved one comes through in the score. It may not have the catchiest melodies, but it has a dedication that makes the other nominees look like beginner's work.

By the end, there is a morose acceptance of the situation. There is no longer a Camelot to try and preserve; at least in the present tense. What has to be done now is to move on in the scary world of a widow with children. The music captures this transition by dropping out the uneasiness of the early strings with something more upbeat. Still, there is a sense of elegance amid a projected alien vibe. It isn't clear what lies ahead for Jacqueline, and the music knows how to say this beautifully. She may be better in a lot of respects, but what is life after love? It's neither one in which the love is forgotten, nor a nostalgic recession. It'll never be clear, much like Levi's score.

While Levi is unfortunately probably going to lose to Justin Hurwitz's work on La La Land, I still think that The Academy nominating her is a great sign of recognizing new and innovative composers. With two fairly great scores to her name before the age of 30, it's interesting to imagine what her future is going to be, and if more will take influence form her ability to find the alien nature of a period piece drama. There may be catchier scores, but few feel as immersive of an experience as the work done for Jackie. It's one of those examples where it's great to just have been nominated. One can only hope that there will be a day when her creative prowess will stand a reasonable chance against the heavyweights. For now, it's great to see The Oscars being weird. 

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