Given the fashion for library music, disco noir and the synth-heavy soundtrack work of Goblin and John Carpenter, it was probably inevitable that Italians Do It Bettter would dip their toe into cinematic waters at some point. That Glass Candy/Chromatics producer Johnny Jewel is the man to take the plunge is little surprise, either; while he’s previously shown few signs of wanting to swap avant synthesizer disco and dark-pop for sweeping strings, grandiose orchestral arrangements and recurring themes, there’s an evocative, melodic feel to his work that suggests he’d be rather good at scoring films.
Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn obviously thinks so. Originally, he asked Jewel to write the score for his acclaimed 2011 flick Drive. The Glass Candy man had already written most of it before Hollywood executives got cold feet, hiring instead a tried-and-tested composer with bags of previous experience. Hollywood’s loss was our gain. Free from the constraints of tailoring his compositions to the demands of a single 90-minute film, Jewel was able to expand his horizons and go off in a myriad of different directions. The results are, for the most part, mesmerizing.
Themes From An Imaginary Film, then, is Jewel’s tribute to the titans of the film and TV soundtrack business; not just synth pioneers such as Goblin’s Claudio Simonetti, Vangelis or John Carpenter, but also heavyweights such as John Williams and Ennio Morricone. As such, it’s kind of a heavily synthesized love letter to cinematic music, penned by a man whose interest in the oeuvre is more than just a passing fad.
At 37 tracks deep and almost two hours long, Themes From An Imaginary Film is every bit as epic in scale and ambition as any leading Hollywood picture. Yet Jewel is not the sort of man to ponder to blockbuster instincts. As a result, the 37 compositions here feel like they’ve been designed not for big budget flicks, but odd, worthy independent films packed with strange story lines and unexpected plot twists. That’s not to say he can’t do “big”. Check the spinetingling moods and intense, darkroom chords of “Mind Games”, or the heartaching melancholy of “Winner Take All”; both feature that killer mix of pathos and haunting sadness that marks out much of the finest film music.
Elsewhere, there are plenty of notable nods to true soundtrack masters. “Over The Edge” and “Paper Chase” sound like lost collaborations between Vangelis and Carpenter, whilst the expansive disco noir of “Behind The Wheel” and “The Maze” sits somewhere between Jan Hammer, Goblin and Harold Faltermeyer – perhaps with the odd nod to Morricone’s evocative melodies and the clandestine synthesized oddness of Jean-Luc Ponty. Incidentally, those seeking raw, analogue synthesizer sounds don’t need to look too hard to get their thrills; “Threshold” is brain melting in its clattering, circuit board-driven quirkiness.
I could go on. Highlights come thick and fast, though it does take a few repeat listens to really get the hang of it all. That’s not to say it doesn’t have instant impact – you’ll rarely find anything quite as obviously attractive as the mood-building thump of “The Point Of No Return” or vocal closer “Streets Of Fire” – just that it’s so vast in scale that it rewards intent listening. It’s well worth the time and effort though; rarely has music designed to accompany imaginary pictures been so brilliantly vivid. Surely it won’t be long before Jewel is doing this for real.