Getting ‘Under The Skin’ of Mica Levi’s Breakthrough Film Score
When Mica Levi burst onto the film scoring scene in 2014, it came as a bit of a shock to the London-born genre-straddling musician.
Their characteristic low-key demeanour and general obsession with the pure sonic qualities of music seemingly allowed them to absorb the success that their breakthrough score for the 2014 film Under The Skin received – without letting it get “under their skin”, as it were.
This sort of refreshingly focused and nonchalant attitude calls to mind other composers we have featured here, including Jonny Greenwood, and is somewhat surprising for someone who was both relatively young at the time of the film and also highly trained in the art form.
WHO IS MICA LEVI?
Levi is a multi-instrumentalist composer and performer who goes by various aliases including Micachu.
They are the front-person and primary songwriter for the London-based avant-pop group Good Sad Happy Bad (formerly Micachu & The Shapes) and a genre-bending composer who has worked with the likes of the London Sinfonietta – and has composed a handful of high-profile film scores including Under The Skin, Jackie and Monos.
Levi has a prolific musical background. Both their father and mother were musicians and teachers, and consequently they began studying music at a young age.
Levi attended the Purcell School for Young Musicians, England’s oldest specialist music school, as well as the Guildhall School, where they eventually dropped out to pursue performing and composing full time.
Levi’s education afforded them opportunities to study theory, composition and orchestration, and have their music performed by symphony orchestra, all the while engrossing themselves in London’s electronic music scene.
It was arguably this all-encompassing attitude towards life and music that delivered Levi the phone call to score Under The Skin.
Credit: LANDMARK MEDIA/Alamy Stock Photo
THE SCORE FOR ‘UNDER THE SKIN’
Under The Skin is a strange film. Part sci-fi, part psychological thriller, part pseudo-horror, the film emanates heavy David Lynch vibes.
Director Jonathan Glazer spent over a decade working on the film, scrapping various plots and storylines and continuously cutting and recutting footage. In an interesting combination of roles, he eventually compiled the final cut around the sounds Levi composed.
Let’s take a look at a few of the cues from the film.
The film’s opening cue, “Creation”, features a sprawling, scratching, spine-tingling array of layered cello, processed and combined in a mesmerising way.
As we zoom in through outer-space, past some sort of planetary eclipse and into the single open eye of the alien character played by Scarlett Johansson, the cascade of cello builds and builds. A disembodied voice emerges from the cacophony, speaking something we can’t quite make out, as if we are Johansson emerging from a cocoon.
Suddenly, the din washes away in a haze of static as the title cut appears on the screen.
In the cue “Andrew Void”, we hear the film’s only real melodic theme fragment for the first time, a haunting, three-note motif that sounds like an alien screaming in the vacuum of space.
This theme appears in several cues and is generally used as a proxy for Johansson’s character.
This cue opens with a similar wash of processed cello sounds, this time less distinct and more obscure. Around 0:55, the theme emerges on the viola or violin in tandem with a boom-bap drum pattern.
The theme is played in a near rubato fashion, meaning loose and without precise meter. It sounds almost as if it is being triggered on a sample pad as opposed to being performed live by a musician.
The cue “Drift” accompanies perhaps the most tragic scene in Under The Skin.
We see Johansson’s character’s complete lack of empathy as she watches a pair of strangers and their dog drown in the dangerous surf of a Scottish beach, knocks a helpful bystander unconscious, and leaves the drowned couple’s baby abandoned on the shore.
The cue features some similar sonic elements as “Andrew Void” including a recap of the boom-bap drum pattern and some variation on the scratchy, high-register string playing.
The cue opens with this sort of breathy, scratchy, processed string playing. The cutoffs on the sounds are abrupt and un-human, echoing Johansson’s character of assumed humanity. The space is frightening and the way the drum pattern is slowly absorbed into a field of modulation effects is an effective mirror for the feeling of drowning.
‘MIRROR TO VORTEX’
The cue “Mirror To Vortex” is a fascinating bit that blurs the line between sound design and composition.
It appears during the scene when Johansson’s character first sees her reflection in a mirror. She witnesses her humanity and begins to feel some remorse for the way she psychotically lures men into her vortex where she feeds on their flesh.
The cue opens with a continuation of the processed string wash, a recurring sonic motif. The wash fades and an atonal, seemingly improvised cello solo emerges from the void. A heavily repeating bass drum figure interrupts the cello as if we are experiencing some sort of glitching cognitive dissonance.
Then, just as eerily as the cue opens, it fades.
The cue “Death” aptly accompanies the scene in which Johansson’s character is burned alive by her pursuer after a near-rape experience reveals that she is in fact an alien in a human flesh suit.
The cue opens with a strong iteration of Johansson’s main theme, varied slightly after repetition with a modulating effect. After some space, the theme emerges again, this time slowed down considerably.
The boom-bap drum pattern fills the space as the theme again emerges, this time even slower. Each time the theme emerges, it becomes progressively slower as we witness Johansson’s character saunter through the woods until she collapses into a burning pile.
THE FLESH IS BUT A SHELL
Mica Levi’s score for Under The Skin is an interesting exploration of the malleability of time and rhythm and a great case study in the power of digital manipulation of analog sounds.
Levi makes strong use of processed strings including cello and viola and conjures obscure, opaque, and vaguely haunting clouds of sound in the vein of composers like Krzysztof Penderecki and Jonny Greenwood.
Their collection of work is highly varied, so be sure to look for more examples of this unique and prolific artiste.
Cover Credit: Dimitrios Vellis/Wikimedia Commons
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Writer | Edward Bond
Edward Bond is a multi-instrumentalist composer, performer, and writer currently bouncing between Trondheim and Berlin. He apparently has the eyes of the devil, enjoys leopard prints, and will read your tarot, but not your future.