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The Aural Girlfriend Experience

There are few directors as attentive to scores as is Steven Sodebergh. He is one of the premiere under-scoring directors — that is to say, he is certainly the most prominent filmmaker to emphasize that holy-grail photo-realist juncture where the aural components of the silver screen (i.e., the live sound that accompanied what is seen, the foley sound added later, and the musical score layered though) combine into one. His two most frequent composers are the ambient figure Cliff Martinez (whose work on Soderbergh’s Solaris may be better loved than the director’s) and DJ David Holmes (whose retro, big-beat electronica has served Ocean’s Eleven and its sequels well). Martinez’s subtle compositions take on the texture of thought in Soderbergh’s more contemplative works, as early as the director’s first feature, sex, lies, and videotape, and Holmes’s clockwork funk suggests the musical equivalent to a heist blueprint. (Holmes is capable of Martinez’s caliber of quietude — check out the near-future drama Code 46.)

I just saw Soderbergh’s most recent feature, The Girlfriend Experience, about a Manhattan call girl, and it may have less music than any film he’s done previously. There’s an opening chord (likely played on guitar), which also closes the film. And otherwise, much of what is heard throughout could very well be the in-scene sound: music in a car, at a restaurant, in an apartment. But there is a credited score, and the credit goes to Morcheeba‘s Ross Godfrey, so perhaps all those anonymous cues are Godfrey’s.

And there is one particular instant, one well-timed moment, that cements the sound in Girlfriend Experience as no less conscious — no less considered, plotted, and executed — than that in any other Soderbergh film. If the initial score cue is that guitar chord, the second is a heavy drum solo, a hard-driving bit of acoustic funk. Like the guitar chord, it has nothing immediate to do with the onscreen images. (The heavy beat is reminiscent of Holmes’s work, one more reason Soderbergh fans might think it a proper cue.)

Only later do we realize that the drum solo is, in fact, a live recording of a street musician, when we see him plying his trade on a street corner (and yes, he’s banging away — this metaphor can be stretched quite a bit before it breaks). This re-use parallels the structure of Girlfriend Experience, which chops up the story into little chunks that are then parceled out in a manner that reveals additional meaning. The movie tells the story of a week in the life of a Manhattan escort named Chelsea (shown in the screen shot above), played by porn star Sasha Grey, and Soderbergh’s intent throughout is to use that real-life parallel to add frisson to the proceedings — a method that reinforces Chelsea’s practice, which is to fulfill the fantasy of her clients that she isn’t just a hooker, but their temporary (and, for regulars, even their on-again/off-again) girlfriend.

That drummer, by the way, is not Godfrey. It’s apparently a popular Manhattan street musician who goes by the name Shakerleg (shown in the screen shot below). More info at shakerleg.com.

Next up for Soderbergh is The Informant, which may prove to be the director’s first venture into over-scoring. It reportedly features an original soundtrack by 65-year-old composer Marvin Hamlisch (The Entertainer, The Spy Who Loved Me, Ordinary People). According at least to the details at imdb.com, it will be the first full-length, non-documentary Hamlisch has scored since he did Barbra Streisand‘s The Mirror Has Two Faces in 1996. The Informant is due out in October.

By Marc Weidenbaum

Tags: , , , / Comments: 6 ]

6 Comments

  1. Ryan Wynns
    [ Posted January 16, 2010, at 3:38 am ]

    Great article. Just watched The Girlfriend Experience, and was fascinated with the music. So perfectly urban. I had to know more, and you’ve answered a lot of my questions. At first I (correctly) thought the drummer was an actual street musician, then was wondering if it was Godfrey when I looked him up and learned of Morcheeba, and this article has clarified it. That sparse guitar work laid over the cold ambient sounds – heard in the opening and during the end credits – is amazing. Anyway, thanks – great job!

  2. Marc Weidenbaum
    [ Posted January 16, 2010, at 8:02 am ]

    Thanks for checking in after having watched the film. I just checked IMDB, and it doesn’t look like Ross Godfrey has anything else film-sound-related publicly announced yet. I hope he does something soon.

  3. Mike A
    [ Posted March 24, 2011, at 11:59 am ]

    I am a little late to the show here. Liked the movie but really liked some of the soundtrack which I believe was produced by David Holmes. Any suggestions on how to find where this can be downloaded? The soundtrack does not appear to exist anywhere. Thanks.

    • Marc Weidenbaum
      [ Posted March 24, 2011, at 6:19 pm ]

      To my knowledge (and, just now, to my Google-ing), the score is not available commercially, sadly.

      • Mike A
        [ Posted March 25, 2011, at 5:44 am ]

        Thanks for confirming what I concluded as well. It is unfortunate.

  4. Mark T
    [ Posted March 29, 2011, at 11:14 pm ]

    so many bad scores out there – and this gem lies in a dark vault forever

    a tragedy!!!!!

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  • Marc Weidenbaum founded the website Disquiet.com in 1996 at the intersection of sound, art, and technology, and since 2012 has moderated the Disquiet Junto, an active online community of weekly music/sonic projects. He has written for Nature, Boing Boing, The Wire, Pitchfork, and NewMusicBox, among other periodicals. He is the author of the 33 1⁄3 book on Aphex Twin’s classic album Selected Ambient Works Volume II. Read more about his sonic consultancy, teaching, sound art, and work in film, comics, and other media

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