I can’t remember the last time something enthralled the public’s eyes and ears like Netflix’ Stranger Things has. Maybe the Macarena? Or the Blue Collar Comedy Tour? The Pam and Tommy Lee sex tape? Regardless, none of those things lived up to the hype that preceded them, except for Stranger Things. This is a show that has the look and feel of a classic 80s movie about kids on an adventure, bonding and being as dorky, fumbling, and awkward as you know you were at that age. It’s also beautifully shot, expertly acted, and just dark enough that it would get a PG-13 rating had it hit theaters in 1984. But had this hit theaters in 1984 it would’ve been a very condensed, hurried, and stunted version of the excellent series we get to watch at our leisure on Netflix. Having this series on streaming network allows twin filmmakers Matt and Ross Duffer to spread this story out over 8 hour long episodes, allowing these characters to become “real” in our eyes. Secret government experiments, telekinesis, friends bonding, first love, dark and foreboding alternate worlds, horrifying creatures, and broken individuals redeeming themselves are all part of the show.
One of the key elements that gives Stranger Things such authenticity is the score by heavy synth band S U R V I V E’s Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein. They use analog synths and retro percussion to build this organic musical world that allows us as an audience to completely fall into the world of Stranger Things.
The 80s synth craze has been in full force for some time now. Bands like Com Truise, Neon Indian, Diana, Steve Moore, Night Terrors, Night Flights, and even Causa Sui’s Jakob Skott have been mining late-70s and early 80s synth for inspiration. There’s a warmth to what analog synthesizers create. There’s an organic element to the sounds those circuit-driven, man-made machines create that make them the perfect instrument to score something like Stranger Things. Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein have just the right touch here. They create sounds brash and harsh when needed, and can create lush and ethereal swaths of beauty as well.
From the dark opening title music “Stranger Things” to the sweetly delicate “Friendship”, the music that permeates the show is yet another element that pushes this show from merely a nostalgia trip to something more like high art. “A Kiss”, “The Upside Down”, and “One Blink For Yes” don’t over due it in terms of ornamenting scenes. Dixon and Stein are subtle composers, and merely serve the scene they’re helping push along. Everything they do goes to serve the storytelling. Yet I find myself happily zoning out listening to the soundtrack on its own.
There was plenty of schmaltzy cheese that came from kid-oriented entertainment in the 80s, but there was also plenty of shows and films that didn’t dumb things down to get to kids. Movies like Explorers, E.T., Goonies, Cloak and Dagger, Starman, Something Wicked This Way Comes, Gremlins, Poltergeist, and countless others that gave us characters that acted the way we acted. They said those four-letter words we said when adults weren’t around, and they were imperfect and disillusioned at times like we were. Their parents were divorced and they were bullied. And sometimes things just didn’t go their way, like in real life. Stranger Things has captured that space and point of time so perfectly. They’ve opened a door to a dreamy, scary time in 1983. They’ve painted this home video portrait of the life of some latchkey kids that I could’ve known. The Duffer Bros have done what JJ Abrams tried to do with Super 8 but couldn’t quite manage. They have found the spirit of Spielberg, Donner, Dante, and Lynch, repurposed it through a modern filter, and have made something wholly original while making it seem so familiar. Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein have scored that cinematic repurposing beautifully, effectively, and with a spirit of loving admiration for both the show and the decade where that show exists and will exist forever in the ether.