On the western verges of the San Fernando Valley, surrounded by an array of custom-constructed instruments — mammoth steel drums, a gamelan metallophone, and the awe-provoking Baschet Cristal, whose spiky protrusions suggest a Mars Rover as much as anything musical — film composer Cliff Martinez wages war with the ordinary. He has hewn a singular path in the scoring of contemporary cinema by channeling his imagination through this gallery of unique musical implements. Influenced by developments at the radical fringes of music making, pulling notes from minimalism and ethnographic melodies alike, Martinez has lent his talents to a diverse assortment of movies and in so doing, has pointed toward the horizon, to what film music could become.
Certainly his recurring collaborations with pathbreaking directors on the order of Steven Soderbergh (Traffic, Solaris) and Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive, Only God Forgives) have done much to cement Martinez as a composer whose output seems always to point toward emerging trends in film scoring. The roster of other recent films abetted by Cliff Martinez scores includes The Lincoln Lawyer, Spring Breakers, Arbitrage and War Dogs. At the time of this writing, two of Martinez’s latest projects are due for theatrical release: The Foreigner, Martin Campbell’s revenge drama framed by Irish terrorism; and director Refn’s latest, The Neon Demon, with its surreal depiction of jealousy and fatal, vampiric obsessions.
Cliff Martinez was born in the Bronx and raised in Ohio, moving to California in 1976, just in time for the upheaval occasioned by punk. His stints as drummer for The Weirdos, Lydia Lunch, Jim Thirwell, The Dickies and most notably The Red Hot Chili Peppers, variously preceded and followed a resume item of signal importance in Martinez’s past, the evidence of which is close at hand. The front hall of the composer’s Topanga Canyon home-cum-studio sports framed album art from the landmark late ‘60s album Trout Masque Replica, signed by “Don,” a testament to Cliff’s one-time role as drummer in the final incarnation of legendary iconoclast Captain Beefheart’s (a.k.a. Don Van Vliet) Magic Band.
It could not have been an altogether bad thing, to be caught up in the mounting buzz surrounding the Red Hot Chili Peppers in the early years of the 1980’s. Cliff Martinez was the drummer and co-writer on that band’s first two albums. His stint with the Peppers came with corollary benefits, such as the band’s rehearsing for months at a stretch in the Detroit living room of their producer, Funkadelic overlord George Clinton. But it was during this period that the band’s drummer spent increasing amounts of studio time in thrall to a recently introduced sampling drum machine, a device that, to Cliff’s mind, held the potential of an entire band within a box. In part, it was his investigation of advancements in music technology that would lead ultimately to Martinez abandoning rock drumming for a career in film scoring.
Cliff Martinez’s entrée into music for film happened by serendipitous means, when a tape collage he had constructed (“Several of my friends making aggressively weird noises, which I assigned to pads on a MIDI percussion controller.”) led to an opportunity to score an episode of comedian Paul Reuben’s transgressive mid-‘80s TV hit, Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. That same sound collage was heard, in turn, by Steven Soderbergh. Prior to his rise to prominence, director Soderbergh tapped budding composer Martinez to provide the music for the former’s first theatrical release, sex, lies and videotape. The film’s success launched a new era of independent filmmaking, did much to establish the Sundance Festival as an arbiter of new directions in cinema and put Cliff Martinez in the ring as a contender within the latest crop of film composers.
Martinez has since composed scores for many of Steven Soderbergh’s films. The hammered dulcimer that wends throughout Kafka; the seasick piano portending the violence concluding The Limey; the amalgam of steel drums and ambient textures drifting in deep space during Solaris; all these were conjured in Cliff’s studio, as were other Soderbergh scores such as Gray’s Anatomy, Schizopolis and Traffic, the latter winning four Oscars and earning an Oscar nomination for its music. Martinez reunited with the director for his successful 2011 pandemic drama Contagion. Soderbergh’s venture into episodic television, The Knick (a 2014 series for Cinemax), had at its core a daring juxtaposition, successfully pitting an all-electronic Martinez score against a period setting, the gritty mise-en-scene of a Victorian-era English hospital.
In addition, Cliff’s ability to balance themes both idiosyncratic and heartrending has imbued critical favorites such Pump Up The Volume (1990), Wicker Park (2004) and the 2003 feature Wonderland with tonal palettes unlike any heard elsewhere in movie theaters. For the latter, Martinez conjured airy timbres unique to the Baschet Cristal. (According to Cliff, the Cristal “Works marvelously during crime scenes, especially those featuring huge plumes of blood on the walls.”) More impressive still was his depiction of sordid mystery at the core of director Joe Carnahan’s Narc (2002), comprising tweaked-out synthetic bass lines culled from electronic dance music and keyboard timbres swathed in digital vapor.
Film music, in its current incarnation, is a truly post-modern animal. It looks to a future of limitless sonic manipulation and electronic texture — those colors once deemed unearthly but now commonplace within a computer-abetted reality — while retaining its footing in the classical appropriations and acoustic instrumentation of Hollywood’s first century. Pick any among the recent films scored by Cliff Martinez and what is heard reflects the work and mindset of a composer who has not only reconciled this seeming dichotomy, but feeds on the friction between past and future of music for cinema, in order to create something new under the sun.
Hearing a given cue from director Brad Furman’s The Lincoln Lawyer (2011) is to enter a realm when speed, fear, hubris and adventure collide to great effect. Harmony Korine’s audacious tale of collegiate hedonism gone tragically wrong, 2012’s Spring Breakers, finds its perfect compliment in the spacious ambiences and gnarly electronic surfaces crafted by Martinez. Orchestrations that nod to the achievements of other film composers (Martinez openly admires the work of the great John Williams) are gene-spliced within compositions only possible with the advent of digital synthesis and signal processing. It seems inevitable as such, given his attraction to music’s terra incognita, that Martinez would enter the open-ended realm of composing for video games, as evidenced by his work on Ubisoft’s Far Cry 4. Regardless of the platform, whatever the project, the imprint left by Cliff Martinez is easily enough recognized: Music that is by turns wry, propulsive, mysterious, invigorating and, through its originality, perpetually arriving.
Aldous Huxley, a figure identified with the antipodal fringes of experience, noted “What the cinema can do better than literature or the spoken drama is to be fantastic.” The English author’s words go some distance toward defining Cliff Martinez’s distinct franchise within the world of film music. Abetted by curiosity for all that is new and otherworldly — whether in music software or the intangibles of timbre and tonality — the man who once drummed continuously for 72 hours, prior to his successful audition for Captain Beefheart, today continues to push the boundaries of what might be considered ‘fantastic’ in film scoring.
Arms and the Dudes 2016
The Neon Demon 2016
The Knick 2014-2015
Far Cry 4 2014
My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn 2014
Ménage à trois: 60 jours sur Mea Culpa 2014
The Normal Heart 2014
Mea culpa 2014
Only God Forgives 2013
The Company You Keep 2012
Spring Breakers 2012
The Lincoln Lawyer 2011
À l’Origine 2009
Severe Clear 2009
First Snow 2006
Wicker Park 2004
Narc: Shooting Up 2003
The Limey 1999
Gray’s Anatomy 1996
The Underneath 1995
King of the Hill 1993
Black Magic 1992
Pump Up the Volume 1990
Sex, Lies, and Videotape 1989
Pee-wee’s Playhouse 1987
69th Festival de Cannes
Won Best Soundtrack (Meilleure Musique de Film Originale) – Neon Demon 2016
Won BAFTA Games Award for Best Music – Far Cry 4 2014
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, 2012.
BMI Film & TV Awards
Won Richard Kirk Career Achievement Award 2013
Won BMI Film Music Award – Traffic 2001
Chicago Film Critics Association Awards
Won Best Original Score – Drive 2011
International Film Music Critics Award (IFMCA)
Won Best Original Score for an Action/Adventure/Thriller Film – Drive 2011
Nominated Best Score Soundtrack Album For A Motion Picture, Television Or Other Visual Media – Traffic 2000
Nominated César Best Music Written for a Film (Meilleure musique écrite pour un film) – À l’Origine 2009
More Awards at IMDb
Red Hot Chili Peppers
Red Hot Chili Peppers (1984)
Freaky Styley (1985)
What Hits? (1992)
Out In L.A. (1994)
Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band
Ice Cream for Crow (1982)
Jim Thirlwell (a.k.a. Clint Ruin) & Lydia Lunch
Weird World (1991)
Killer Klowns From Outer Space (1988)
Second Coming (1989)
Idiot Savant (1994)
See Cliff’s biography at WIKIPEDIA