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Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Soundtrack Review: #TheNeonDemon

The Neon Demon - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack is twisted, sexual brilliance.

Review by Matt Cummings

While the 2016 movie season has seen a ton of misses, misfires, and genuine disasters, the same cannot be said for soundtracks. Already, we've witnessed half a dozen memorable contenders, including The Nice Guys, Forza Motorsports 6, and X-Men: Apocalypse. But with the arrival of The Neon Demon - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, there's a new top dog, elevated by sexy dance beats and twisted interludes that make it our new favorite of the year.

From acclaimed indie director Nicolas Winding Refn, The Neon Demon introduces us to the dark world of fashion modeling. Bright-eyed and busy-tailed Jesse (a very good Elle Fanning) arrives in Los Angeles from Georgia, ready to make the big time. She has only one asset: her incredible natural looks, which quickly gain the attention of the bisexual make-up artist/moonlighting mortician Ruby (an even better Jena Malone). Jesse instantly becomes the flavor of the month as it were in the L.A. fashion industry, setting her against the status quo of using surgically-enhanced models. Enraged by her almost nubile appearance, two models (Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee) plot her demise, while a seedy hotel pervert (a terrific Keanu Reeves) makes her home life (and many other unsuspecting girls) incredibly dangerous. As Jesse's success begins to corrupt her, she must decide who can be trusted, all while dark forces plot her violent demise.

Composer Cliff Martinez, best known for his work on 2000's Traffic, brings a pulsing, energetically dark masterpiece to one of this year's more unique movies. Demon would not be the experience it is without Martinez's synth score, flawlessly merging 80's Miami Vice-like tones with the sexual dominance of The Matrix and the beauty of Blade Runner. Such high praise doesn't come lightly, but take a moment to listen and you'll understand why. From the first track The Neon Demon, we're instantly transported into a sensual world of keyboards and odd sound effects that remind me of Rick Wakeman's score to Crimes of Passion before grounding down into a serious dance beat. Demon Dance is perhaps my favorite track, but it's frankly hard to nail down just one (or even 10) that I could highlight. For 5:59, we're transported into the world of Ruby and Jesse as they witness an S&M performance complete with strobe lights, as Ruby scopes out Jesse while she's transfixed by the floating, bound, and nude figure. It's twisted, demented, and a complete victory for setting the tone of what's to come.

Even tracks 3 (What Are You) and 4 (Don't Forget Me When You're Famous) are shorter but no less effective. Most of these pieces sound like Space music, made famous by Steve Roach or Brian Eno. Here, Martinez offers up gorgeous transitions, many of which are dominated by simple keyboard environmentals that make every impact possible before quietly fading away. Gold Paint Shoot is one of them, a brilliantly-conceived track as Jesse is transformed by a photographer for her first professional photo shoot, while Ruby at the Morgue and Jesse Sneaks Into Her Room serve up additional unique (albeit short) textures. But there's also genuinely weird music here as well, including track 11's Messenger Walks Among Us, a hauntingly odd affair for the first 2 minutes before getting back into that Miami Vice electronic drum beat to finish things off.

Much like the movie, Martinez never lets his music become stale, finding new heights to reach as proven in track 12's Runaway. Here, he utilizes a collection of 'dirty' keyboards, which stretch across each bar, adding in Airwolf-like MIDI sequences before going truly weird about 2:15 into the track. I can't quite explain what happens, except to say that it's one of the most powerful efforts in the collection, and one I find myself returning to often. The middle of the album is dominated by shorter pieces like these, including I Would Never Say You're Fat and Kinky. The latter is especially impactful, especially when you remember what's happening in the film by this point, as Jesse's world becomes totally poisoned by her success. As the voices get weirder, we appreciate it for taking such bold risks. Take a moment to enjoy Ruby's Big Closeup and Are We Having a Party and tell me they aren't some of the best tracks you've heard this year.

Unlike some scores which offer 2-5 very good pieces surrounded by transition markers that can feel out of place, Demon boasts a murderer's row of hits, each one borrowing elements from the other but serving to drive the story as it reaches it bloody and disturbing conclusion. Even the three vocal pieces by Sia - who was featured in 2015's The Equalizer alongside Eminem - are opulent dance tracks that showcase this singer's amazing talents while giving Martinez new territory to explore. Her vocals for both Mine - Sweet Tempest and Waving Goodbye are going right into my media player, so strong that they could support the basis for her next album.

The 23 tracks from Milan Records are expertly mixed and should sound great on your earbuds and portable Bluetooth speaker. But don't be surprised if people come to you asking for a track list. The Neon Demon - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack is hands down the best score of the year so far, giving Martinez free reign to probe every dark corner of the genre to emerge with a dark, sensual experience that must be heard. And just like the movie, Demon might not be for everyone, but I guarantee you won't be bored in opening your mind to its manipulative ways.

The Neon Demon - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack is in theaters now, with the CD now available and a vinyl version arriving July 8th.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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