Mica Levi’s evocative score is both horrifying and captivating at a live event.
By Zaida Diaz, Valley Life Editor
If the unworldly experience established by the images and story of Jonathan Glazer’s sci-fi nightmare “Under the Skin” was not enough, Mica Levi’s riveting music deepens the unsettling atmosphere for its audience.
Last week, The Regent Theatre in downtown Los Angeles held a pair of screenings of the moody film with a live orchestra brilliantly performing the score led by 26-year-old British composer Mica Levi.
The orchestra was situated with the screen above them. The Regent’s acoustics were ideal for the live performance making the music seem more present. The space, however, is known to mainly host concerts and the echo made it difficult to understand the thick Scottish dialogue.
Although this is Levi’s first film soundtrack, she has received widespread critical praise for her score of “Under the Skin.” It was passed over for an Oscar nomination this week and at the 2014 European Film Awards Levi was honored with the European Composer award. In addition to that, she tied with Jonny Greenwood (“Inherent Vice”) for Best Music/Score at the Los Angeles Film Critics Awards.
“Under the Skin” is directed by Glazer (“Sexy Beast”) and adapted by Glazer and Walter Campbell from Michel Faber’s 2000 novel of the same name. The film looks at humanity through the eyes of an extraterrestrial being (Scarlett Johansson).
The film does a beautiful job of demonstrating this during the film’s mind-bending opening sequence, where an eye, the alien’s eye, is being created in the vast darkness of space. It is a symbolic piece that tells the audience that their experience will be limited to that of the alien’s.
Johansson’s character, Laura, however, is no benign E.T. just wanting to phone home. She is an alien seductress sent to Earth in search of lonely men. “She” drives the roads of Scotland luring men into her white van and eventually takes them to her mysterious lair, where they meet their demise.
As the woman leads the men into her house, Levi’s orchestra commences with what is perhaps the most menacing sound of the score. As they step into a pitch black space the orchestra makes sounds like swarming bees, followed by slowing percussion.
It is in this moment, where the men seem to be slowly swallowed by the floor and then their insides are ripped from their skin. The unease generated by the scene’s visuals is only amplified by the hair-raising, keening strings.
Levi’s work is very effective here because every time Laura takes a man inside her lair, the audience hears the same rhythmic patterns –a sure signal that the men are doomed. Levi’s score is spare, often isolating single instruments or even long, sustained single notes over unobtrusive backgrounds. It’s eerie without being overpowering or obvious, reflecting the composer’s experimental roots.
As the film progresses and Laura spends more time in our world, she begins to discover what it means to be human and therefore drifts away from her mission. She experiences acts of kindness and in order to reflect that the audience briefly hears the tone of the music transform.
The tracks “Bedroom” and “Love” are demonstrations of momentary tranquility. “Love” sounds very much like something that Lana Del Rey would sing to; it has a sad but lifting quality to it.
The score is a direct response to what is being shown on screen, so to listen to the soundtrack without the imagery seems almost strange, with “Love” being the exception – the rare track that stands on its own. Without the images, though, the music provides a haunting, visceral reminder of the slow nightmare of the film.
Glazer’s film leaves many unanswered questions. For instance, where is this alien from? Why was it only preying on men? These may have been intentionally left unanswered in order to create a sense of mystery or ambiguity, so as to feel as the alien felt in a foreign space.
Levi’s score sees that ambiguity and raises it hackles-raising strangeness and occasional warm beauty.
“Under the Skin” is no longer in theaters, however it is available on DVD/Blu-Ray and digital download.
Rated R for graphic nudity, sexual content, some violence and language