There are many different approaches and styles when it comes to utilizing a score within a film. That may seem obvious, but it’s an often overlooked and underappreciated aspect of the filmmaking process. Often a combined effort between the production team and the composer, the versatility and range of possibilities is staggering. While some scores get placed front and center, serve as an emotional undercurrent, or play off events unfolding on screen, others get relegated to mere background noise. And then there are those films that refuse to play by traditional rules, transforming and elevating their scores into key storytelling devices as important and integral as lighting or editing. One of these special films is Jonathan Glazer’s 2013 sci-fi mindbender, Under the Skin and its intoxicating score by Mica Levi.
Establishing his name and reputation in the world of music video production, it makes sense that Glazer would spend extra time and thought on selecting composers for his feature films. After all, how could one not have an extra appreciation for music after working alongside artists like Jamiroquai, Radiohead, Massive Attack, UNKLE and Blur. On his first feature film Sexy Beast, Glazer showed his keen ear for talent when he hired Spanish composer Roque Baños. An early film in his now prolific career, Baños would go on to score many genre favorites including Don’t Breathe and 2013’s Evil Dead.
For his controversial 2004 film Birth, Glazer turned to iconic composer Alexandre Desplat (The Shape of Water). However, Under the Skin would require something…different. Not knowing exactly what he wanted, but knowing more what he didn’t want, Glazer turned down multiple opportunities to work with established film composers. Finally, the pieces all fell into place when Glazer was introduced to the music of Micachu & the Shapes.
“[…] there are those films that refuse to play by traditional rules, transforming and elevating their scores into key storytelling devices as important and integral as lighting or editing. One of these special films is […] Under the Skin.”
Immediately taken with the electo-pop group’s palette of synthesized sounds, originality and complexity of emotion, Glazer reached out to the band’s lead creative engine, Mica Levi. Classically trained and raised by musicians, Levi’s talent and creativity was undeniable, but up until this point had never included film scoring. Be that as it may, Glazer’s passion, vision and hands on approach to the film’s score convinced Levi to venture into this bold new territory. Bringing Michachu & the Shapes drummer Marc Pell into the recording studio with her, Levi, Pell, Glazer and music supervisor Peter Raeburn crafted a score that not only supported the story, it shaped it. Editing around Levi’s score for the final cut, Glazer and Levi worked in tandem to infuse Under the Skin‘s sonic and visual elements into one powerfully cohesive and impactful work of art.
At its core, Under the Skin is a story of an Earth-bound alien entity played by Scarlett Johansson. In service to her fellow aliens, she combs the streets of Scotland in search of male victims. Hunting them like prey, she seduces and lures the men into her otherworldly lair where they become trapped and consumed. While initially focused only on her mission, the complexities of emotion and humanity begin to seep in and change her. A tragic, terrifying and mysterious tale, Under the Skin explores what it means to embrace humanity, agency and identity. For better or for worse. Kicking off this journey of evolution (and the film itself) is the track ‘Creation.’
Undeniably Kubrick-ian in stylistic visual execution, the opening credit sequence for the film also acts as our first introduction to The Female alien. Swirling, vibrating strings buzz and hum with an unsettled and chaotic energy in a dark sea of black. Underscored by an ambient swell and echoing climate of space, there’s an emptiness amidst the atonal, seemingly directionless interchange of sound. Seamlessly diverging and converging at will, there’s a fluidity amidst the disarray. Like a hive of bees, or a congested city street, there’s a method to the madness as all the singular pieces are contributing to a larger, cohesive picture.
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Naturally uncomfortable with its heavily textured sound and lack of identifiable melodic markers to grasp onto, the track acts as a perfect introduction to our lead character as she prepares to enter the alien workforce. Simultaneously spacious and intensely oppressive, this sonic tone sets the table for a undeniably mysterious and intriguingly dangerous character before her full image even hits the screen.
As we begin to (slowly) learn more about our leading lady and what exactly she is capable of, Levi’s score begins to take on a role of significant importance. Following The Female as she navigates public streets and shopping centers, the score gives us a glimpse into her psyche that her outward behavior does not. As the track ‘Lipstick to Void‘ plays out, we watch her observe and gaze upon people in a voyeuristic fashion.
Slow, steady and reverberating drum beats convey her calm, collected inner being as she surveys her potential victims. Noting behaviors, emotions and social cues, her interest in the mundane becomes peaked and evident through short, pulses of elongated string notes. Upon luring an unwitting male specimen into her lair, the string lines are elaborated on. A continual repetition of escalating notes, the sound is seductive and sonically alluring while anchored by low swells of ambiguous sound. Electronically manipulating the tones and natural pitch of the sounds, Levi creates a terrifying and anxiety-inducing array of sounds that unsettles with its execution. Familiar but undeniably off and hauntingly distorted, the sounds become indicative of The Female‘s view of not only herself, but how she thinks she appears to the men.
Closely linked to The Female‘s character and subsequent development, Levi’s score evolves along with her. The most notable example of this comes in the track ‘Love.’ After identifying and embracing her evolving identity and outlook on what she is doing, The Female‘s sonic palette expands and shifts. Experiencing varying degrees of connection with multiple men, this melodic change works as an outward indicator of her internal exploration of choice and evolving stance on humanity.
More structured than previous musical tracks, ‘Love‘ features a more recognizable form of traditional music. Chords resolve and progress in new, aurally pleasing ways imbuing the track and The Female simultaneously with a new sense of hopefulness and acceptance. Still utilizing earlier established instrumentation and electronic manipulation devices, Levi pushes them in ways that retain familiarity while subtly maturing them. Heartbreakingly atmospheric and beautifully surreal, Levi’s score connects us with The Female more deeply and intimately than words or performance alone could ever convey.
In a 2017 The New Yorker article, Hollywood music supervisor Randall Poster described Levi’s scoring style by saying “It’s not a companion; it’s the marrow of the narrative.” While speaking of Levi’s subsequent and stunning score for Jackie specifically, the sentiment remains valid for Under the Skin as well. More than simple accompaniment or an emotional structural beam in a complex structure, Levi’s musical contributions are foundational. Intrinsically and complexly linked to character development, Levi’s unique, modern and evolving approach to film sound works best on films like Under the Skin with limited cast and focused characters. Zeroing in on these specific characters, their internal motivations, thought processes and emotional states, Levi’s music adds a startling and powerfully unique depth to character. And in the case of Under the Skin, in which your character is a literal man-eating alien at odds with their own identity, you get an out-of-this world experience with one of the best, most unnerving scores of the modern era.
What are some of your favorite sci-fi horror scores? Want more score recommendations? Check out our previous installments of Terror on the Turntable, where I dissect an iconic horror score each month! Talk all things Under the Skin with us over on Twitter or in the Fiend Club Facebook Group!