‘American Ultra’, the latest film by Nima Nourizadeh, starring Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart, is a twist on the stoner comedy, with Eisenberg’s character unknowingly being a super-spy. To complement this concept, Nourizadeh wanted a slightly different score, with a twist, than her previous films.
The score for ‘American Ultra’ was composed by Marcelo Zarvos (The Affair, Ray Donovan), with additional music by Paul Hartnoll, of the excellent British artist, Orbital. While I was aware of Hartnoll’s work, I was less consciously knowledgeable of Zarvos’ music, although I must have heard some of it having seen some of the films and TV shows he has scored for.
Nima Nourizadeh’s stated aim was to create an ‘electronic sounding’ score that was never clearly a played instrument, so that even when organic sounds, or clearly played instruments like drums appear, they are processed to evolve and shift through the music.
When listening to the album I do get a sense that they have achieved what they set out to do, with Hartnoll’s experience clearly coming to the fore in bringing in that element. I have not yet seen the film, but I would like to experience the music ‘in situ’, as without seeing the picture I don’t get the full effect of whether the ‘shifting’ nature of the processing is as unsettling, or as evasive as they intended.
This sense that the music relies on the image for its full effect is reinforced by the fact that many of the pieces are either very short or essentially stings, and not fully evolved standalone pieces. Only a few of the 22 tracks are over the 2 minute mark. This in itself is not a problem, but indicates to me that I’m missing part of the puzzle.
Stylistically, the album is a mixture, with some tracks obviously bearing Hartnoll’s touch, while others have a more 80s feel that brings Jan Hammer to mind. In some ways I can imagine the 80s sounding ones not being entirely out of place in some cop shows of the 80s or in montage sequences of CSI.
Where the more retro 80s feel comes good is where the spirit of John Carpenter is evoked and they are more brooding, moving away from the more cheesy elements.
This is definitely a mixture of an album and is not one that I would choose to put on to listen to, as the tracks are much more like ‘cues’ than independent pieces, and it isn’t entirely cohesive as a whole. For me this soundtrack works best when Hartnoll is the driving force, and it may just be that Zarvos’ style in an electronic form isn’t to my taste; I have since checked out his work more consciously and I do like many of his pieces, so it definitely isn’t his composing I don’t like.
Overall an interesting album, which just needs to be more Carpenter, more Orbital, and less Jan Hammer.