Transformer, Singular: 'Drive' Sings the Body Electric

Lee Dallas

Va-va-va-vroooom: Cannes Best Director winner Nicolas Winding Refn talks Drive with PopMatters.


Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Christina Hendricks, Ron Perlman, Oscar Isaac, Albert Brooks
Rated: R
Studio: FilmDistrict
Year: 2011
US date: 2011-09-16 (General release)
UK date: 2011-09-23 (General release)

Blood isn't red in Nicolas Winding Refn's new film Drive, out now in theatres across the country. Blood per Refn is scarlet-crimson-carmine, the color of a femme fatale's lipstick, cherry and ketchup at the same time. It's also all over the place. Extravagant violence fuels Refn's narrative, giving Drive a nightmarish quality totally dissimilar to the giddy gross-out hijinks of, say, a Tarantino picture. Such super-saturization is indicative of the film as a whole, which plays out as a kind of duel between various binaries: silence and noise, stillness and rapid action, innocence and psychotic cruelty, man and machine. Drive recalls the work of Douglas Sirk and Nicolas Ray as much as it does Michael Mann, and as such explodes the genre of the “car movie” even as it distills it to its essence.

Refn, when asked to discuss the creative process behind the film, makes it clear that this constant interplay between extremes is no accident. The Danish director, best known to American audiences for his recent features Bronson (starring a volcanic Tom Hardy) and Valhalla Rising, sat down with PopMatters recently to talk about his inspirations, collaborators, and aesthetic strategies and how they shaped his explosive new feature, and he made it clear from the beginning that Drive's territory is that of the larger-than-life.

“This movie was really inspired by Grimm's Fairy Tales,” he says without hesitation, handily disregarding my citations of possible film noir influences. This mythological inspiration led him out of the woods of Northern Europe and straight to Los Angeles, a setting certainly imbued in its own peculiar brand of the extraordinary. “That's what I wanted to do, set a fairy tale in Los Angeles. I'd long had this idea of the whole illusion of Hollywood, the mythology of filmmaking, and the mythology of film characters,” a notion that translated into the grand figure of the film's eponymous “Driver”. This protagonist, brought to astoundingly visceral (and almost exhausting) life by golden boy Ryan Gosling, is so seemingly inhuman he lacks even a name: instead, he is given a signifier that implies all action. Refn links Drive to Bronson and Valhalla Rising through their demonically-heroic central figures: “I think they [Drive, Bronson, and Valhalla Rising] have a common theme which is they're all about characters that transform themselves,” he says, choosing another verb, like “drive”, that suggests a vector of forward momentum.

That momentum results, in the case of Driver and Drive, in a transformation from innocence to mercilessness, but also perhaps from machine-like indifference to deep love and compassion. When asked how he sought to craft in Driver a likeable and empathetic figure, he brings up the character of Irene, played with stirring quietness by Carey Mulligan. “You automatically gravitate toward the purity of the love story in the first half. What's innocent about Driver is his love for Irene and that justifies all of the action and violence later on. He has to do what he does in order to protect her; he does all of this for her” and thus, Refn claims, for an awakened sense of self. “All of this [action], for what is essentially the love of his life, is self-preservation.”

When it came to finding the right actors to make his characters' emotional arcs legible, Refn found himself playing a relatively passive role. Ryan Gosling, in fact, was the principal instigator of the entire project. “Ryan was interested in a script being developed [from James Sallis' novel], and we were interested in working together for a long time,” Refn explains, going on to add that as the project developed in increasingly “fetishistic” ways, Gosling's bankability in Hollywood became a greater and greater asset. “It was definitely a good situation to be in,” Refn notes. “I had the power of the star to protect me in making the movie I wanted to make.”

Of course, in Gosling, Refn has found more than a star, but a creative partner with whom he was capable of a nearly supernatural symbiosis. “Ryan and I have what I call a telekinetic relationship, we can actually read each other's thoughts. If we're across the room, he can read my thoughts and I can read his thoughts, so we have a very... mystical relationship.” Gosling's approach to portraying Driver seems to mirror the telekinetic energy that apparently fed the shoot: Driver is a nearly-silent figure whose emotions and motivations would be positively inscrutable were it not for Gosling's psychic magnetism in the role.

The actor, whose star-power and thespian credibility are reaching new heights at the moment thanks to highly-buzzed turns in pieces like Derek Cianfrance's Blue Valentine and George Clooney's upcoming The Ides of March, establishes complex relationships with his co-stars through the tiniest movements: a winking glance at Shannon (Bryan Cranston), his employer and mentor of sorts; the apprehensive warmth in a gesture toward Irene's son Benicio (Kaden Leos) while taking him for a driver in his car; a confused mingling of childish wonder and protective authority as Irene lets him venture inside her apartment for the first time. His physical presence as Driver shows no trace of an actorly crutch or even a general approach to the character: in the slouching against a wall, chewing of a toothpick, manhandling of a shady character who bites back information, he simply merges into Driver.

Refn surrounds Gosling with an arsenal of Hollywood hot items and magnetic character actors, many of whom sought the director out personally for the chance to work on the film. Casting Irene was proving difficult until Carey Mulligan took the initiative to contact Refn. As he explains it, “I was meeting a lot of actresses for that role and I couldn't make up my mind. I was frustrated because we were ready to start production and I didn't have an Irene, but I got a call if I would meet with her because she had told her agent that she wanted to work on a Refn movie. I had never thought of her, but the minute she came through the door, I knew it'd be her. There's just something about her that just works for the character.”

Ron Perlman, an arresting screen presence in the role of mob villain Nino (who Refn concedes was “underwritten” leading up to production), had a distinctly personal pitch for why he was suited for the part: “He called me, he wanted to play Nino as a jewish gangster because he said, 'I'm a Jewish man but all my life I wanted to play an Italian gangster!'” Bryan Cranston, on the other hand, Refn claims he “needed to woo a little bit,” as the Breaking Bad actor has been fielding numerous offers as that show continued its critical and commercial boom, but soon after meeting with Refn he was sold on playing the crippled, Falstaff-reminiscent Shannon. Refn was unfamiliar with Mad Men bombshell Christina Hendricks when she approached him for the part of stripper/crook/all-around bad girl Blanche, but she convinced him quickly. “Christina came to my house to pitch herself in the role of Blanche. When she came by she was so endearing and nice, very creative. I'd never seen her work or anything she'd ever done, but I liked the way she looked... she has a great personality.”

When I ask him about his actual directing style once production actually begins, Refn turns severely humble: “I don't go overboard, I don't do anything, I basically just show up!” he laughs, and claims that his primary concern on the set is just making sure the actors are comfortable in the moment. The vivid character turns by Perlman, Cranston, Hendricks and a grandly-menacing Albert Brooks serve as irrefutable proof that Refn's worry-free approach to guiding them works wonders.

In addition to the skills of his heavyweight ensemble, Drive's operatic narrative arc is made legible via a super-sensory approach to sound and color. Drive takes advantage of its setting through an intoxicating neon color palette, sparkling Driver's deadly nighttime sojourns through the streets with loud pinks, golds and greens, reflected constantly off shiny metal and thick glass. It's a decidedly atmospheric and affected approach, but it still makes Los Angeles look sexier on the screen than the city has in years. The audience is further seduced through Refn's musical choices, which recall the swooningest heights of the 80s teen romance flick, in all its synthesizer glory. Says Refn: “Kraftwerk was the main musical inspiration, and that led me to this whole synthesized sound that came out of Eurovision. The songs featured in the movie are new songs, but have a retro feel, of an older period.” In rhapsodizing about his sonic inspirations, he makes clear the importance of music in his creative process as a whole: “I always try to look at a movie as if it was a piece of music, and if it was, then what piece of music would it be? And I would use that to help me writing and shooting and editing. Electronic music was my choice this time, but I wanted it to be very feminine and very sparse, but still very much rooted in technology at a certain stage, almost like sci-fi sounds.”

This interplay between soft femininity and hard textural electronica thus further colors both Driver's transformation and Drive's fluctuating relationship to the action movie as a genre: there is something different here, quiet but dangerous, an emotional tenor that alters the stakes of everything we see. The violent acts Driver performs with greater frequency as the film barrels toward its conclusion are certainly disparate from his growing love and compassion for Irene and Benicio, but are they not also borne out of that love and compassion? The rivers of blood that wash the screen might seem to contrast, in a cruel or even sickly comic way, to the heartfelt declarations of love wafting through the speakers of the theatre, but they nonetheless enter the audience's nervous system at the same time, bonded together even when they are independent.

In his transformation (from machine to man? from passivity to activity? from apathy to overwhelming emotion?) Driver finds himself capable of astonishing compassion and astonishing cruelty at the same time. The rays of sunlight that caress him, Irene and Benicio on an afternoon outing practically smell of ambrosia, and the blood he pummels out of his enemies' skulls is of a seemingly bottomless crimson. Drive is a fairy tale, all right: it deals in reds and golds, of soaring highs and desperate lows, of good and evil all coiled up inside one nameless figure. It is, in a word, sensational.

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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