I was hollow-stomached with worry when I heard about this reworking. It took some courage to press play.
It’s only a few months ago that I watched the film with its original soundtrack and it was an experience rich with wonder, heartache, fear, delight and desolation. There are films that I love more, and certainly films that I will watch many more times, but this movie really got its hooks into me.
I put ‘Drive’ in the same bracket as something like ‘Leaving Las Vegas’: as films where the beauty and the tenderness live side-by-side with crushing brutality and sadness. When that combination is delivered this brilliantly it would be a feat of immense commitment or masochism to put yourself through it repeatedly.
In fact I haven’t ever watched ‘Leaving Las Vegas’ again since entering a screening on a whim one late, late Friday night. I couldn’t face Nicolas Cage’s slow suicide or the violence inflicted on Elisabeth Shue. My trepidation in re-watching ‘Drive’ is much the same: inexorably hurtling towards Ryan Gosling’s unavoidable doom, as on a tractor beam, and the crescendo of physical damage unleashed when the tension finally explodes.
Of course, the power of the film is in part due to the combination of sound, score and additional music. That’s why this project, curated by Zane Lowe, has attracted so much interest, and so much opprobrium.
The original was scored by Cliff Martinez who was once upon a time the drummer for the Red Hot Chili Peppers and who has also worked on films like ‘Solaris’ (2002), ‘The Lincoln Lawyer’ and ‘Only God Forgives’. The beating heart of the soundtrack was College and Electric Youth’s monumental ‘A Real Hero’.
Taking on something like this was always going to be unlikely to succeed. Imagine someone trying to rescore ‘Pulp Fiction’ or ‘Lost In Translation’ if you want to appreciate further the size of the task. ‘Drive’ has more in common with the latter – here the sound is as much about atmosphere as it is about showing off what has been rescued from charity shop vinyl boxes.
It does feel as though Lowe has tried to stuff in as many stars of today as possible, shoehorning the acts in for profile rather than finding music that works together with the visuals, the dialogue, the action and the characters. The example that screams out, and that has been much picked-up in social media, is the pairing of Laura Mvula’s ‘Mellow Man’ with the totemic lift scene. Watching that first time around was the most exquisite kind of pain: a wonderfully tender oasis reinforced with seamlessly sympathetic and understated music that served to unbearably heighten the sense of inevitable annihilation of our hero and heroine. Instead, the rescore butchers the romance and the terror, robbing the moment with a crass mismatch.
Elsewhere, there are other bad decisions such as in the car chase that follows the disastrous pawnshop heist. The cod-drum’n’bass nonsense that overwhelms this segment wouldn’t be out of place in a Jason Statham vehicle. In the original the action was given space, the only sound coming from the car engines and the squealing wheels. This gave the action a sudden, heady pump of reality, pounding home to the audience that everything has gone to shit.
The film’s closing moments are also undone. Instead of allowing us a chance to mourn (with) our leading man and lady, we get an attempt to re-tread the end of ‘Lost In Translation’, a desperate-seeming grab at the kudos of Sofia Coppola’s iconic use of The Jesus and Mary Chain’s ‘Just Like Honey’.
There are successes: I prefer CHVRCHES’ new opening theme ‘Get Away’ to the jarring ‘Nightcall’ by Kavinsky featuring Lovefoxxx. It’s a much better partner for dark L.A. and the pink neon lettering of the credits. On a smaller note the music that covers Driver’s entry into the underground garage to find a bloodied Standard gives us a stronger evocation of menace.
All of which leaves me with no overwhelming reason to recommend watching this rather than the film as Refn intended it. I certainly didn’t dislike the rescore overall but it isn’t as good as its predecessor and there are some real bum notes. If anything, this experience has polished the halo of the original (set aside the soundtrack for the moment); for a rescoring not to have done any irreversible damage suggests to me that ‘Drive’ must have enough cinematic quality to withstand even the mangled elevator moment.
I can’t finish without talking about everything else that this movie has going for it. Newton Thomas Sigel does what an excellent cinematographer does – he makes the light a major player. Nighttime is a heady mix of neon-sheen and bottomless shadows; daytime is the brilliant glare of the sun either noon-direct or evening-angled, sometimes seemingly filtered hazily through the dust kicked up by the Driver’s ceaseless tyres.
Ryan Gosling is so watchable as the Driver: beautiful, cool, shy, quietly demanding our sympathy from the outset. Listen and swoon as he rescues Benicio from bullet-induced nightmares: “You want me to keep that for you ?” In those instances where he lets his rage out, there is no question that he is convincing. I can see how a performance this precise might be too much for some people; I think it depends how much you want to believe in him, not how believable he is.
Carey Mulligan has never been better. She’s much more than just a physical presence of course but in ‘Drive’ she is awesomely prepossessing. There is a second where she laughs at Gosling’s realisation that he has to put tyres on his car to give her a lift that totally blows me away. Watch her as she smiles from behind the counter during Standard’s ‘welcome home’ party. Enjoy the connection between Irene and The Driver in the corridor. I can’t fault a single word, a single glance; the timing of her lines is exquisite throughout.
If you want to see the rescore you’ve got 24 hours left to watch or download it from iplayer; it comes off the site at 2340 on Thursday 6 November. Whether you do or not, make sure and watch, or re-watch, the fantastic original.