One of the most powerful aspects of Jonathan Glazer’s gorgeous and daring “Under the Skin” is its score from British singer-songwriter and producer Mica Levi: a haunting mix of strings, percussion and flute that’s sometimes unsettling, sometimes dreamlike and always original. It keeps you on edge from the very beginning, and it beautifully accompanies the transformation that Scarlett Johansson’s character undergoes.
Last night at the newly reopened Regent Theater in Downtown Los Angeles, I had the great pleasure of rewatching the film with Levi conducting a 25-piece orchestra which performed the score before a sold-out audience. The century-old theater, which was home to grindhouse fare and porn in the 1970s, has been restored to its former glory, and it provided an intimate and appropriately dramatic setting for such a bold film.
In case you haven’t seen “Under the Skin” — and you really should, since it’s one of 2014’s best — Johansson stars as a sexy, otherworldly being who prowls the streets of Scotland in a minivan seeking lonely, single men to fulfill her nefarious purposes. It’s challenging and intentionally ambiguous but also just exquisite in its imagery, visual effects and sound design.
Watching it again with Levi at the helm, I noticed several different elements I didn’t catch completely upon initial viewing. When I first saw the movie, it blew me away from both a technical and a narrative perspective. And Johansson’s performance truly wowed me: It’s probably the best work of her long and eclectic career because it requires her to be both seductive and elusive, often within the blink of an eye.
This time, there was a heightened buzz in the room with such gifted musicians performing this awesome and avant-garde score right in front of us. The staccato of the violas sizzled even more, and the steady drum that’s the heartbeat of Johansson’s hunt provided an even more unbearable feeling of suspense. But I also felt more aware of her arc — possible spoilers ahead — as she goes from cold and driven predator to uncertain and emotional prey. Glazer establishes subtle parallels: the way she walks backward as she lures various men into her lair, and then later follows a man who’s walking backward as he leads her down a narrow, scary staircase. His camera tracks men walking down the street, lingering as it sizes them up, but regards the women who walk by with indifference.
I also noticed the first contacts with humanity that touched her even earlier — the blood on her hand from a street vendor’s rose precedes her encounter with the kindhearted, facially disfigured man who earns her reprieve. And the terror she experiences once she opens herself up to mortal sensations felt even more chilling this time around. It felt immediate and intense, and I’m certain that had everything to do with hearing the climactic section of the score played live.
It was also just extremely cool to see Levi do her thing so calmly, so commandingly, before a packed house. She’s only 28 years old and this is her first film score — she’s probably best known as Micachu of the experimental pop band The Shapes — which makes her the rare woman composing music for movies today. Think about it: When you consider the most prominent and acclaimed composers in film history, names like Nino Rota, Ennio Morricone, John Williams, Hans Zimmer, Alexandre Desplat and Danny Elfman come to mind. All men.
Levi is blazing a trail both musically and just through her sheer presence. She also happens to be the Los Angeles Film Critics Association’s winner of the best music score award, tying with Jonny Greenwood for his work on “Inherent Vice.” I’d say we chose pretty well — and I can’t wait to see (and hear) what she does next.