Chromatics' Johnny Jewel Takes Ryan Gosling Film on a Metallic Musical Journey

Johnny Jewel may have created the ultimate soundtrack re-mix project in the history of film scores: None of the 37 cues on the soundtrack to Ryan Gosling’s Lost River are exactly as they are heard in the film.

The leader of Chromatics, Glass Candy and Symmetry, not to mention owner of the Italians Do It Better label, remixed the music from scratch for vinyl that will be released this month, added music that had been removed but “informed the final psychology of the film” and created six suites out of score material.

“Sometimes I feel the experience can be expanded (for a soundtrack) because you need to mute yourself to match picture,” Jewel says over lunch at a café around the corner from his home on the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles. “The soundtrack (album) is just for the listening experience and the sequence is made to be listened to from track 1 to track 37.

“There’s this arc that happens. The transitions are when you turn over the platter: each record side is its own suite.”

Warner Bros. is releasing Lost River, Gosling’s directorial and writing debut, on April 10 in theaters in Los Angeles and New York and on VOD nationally. The film stars Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks, Iain De Caestecker, Saoirse Ronan and Matt Smith, whose voices are used on the soundtrack as well, which landed Jewel in even more uncharted territory.

Eight pieces of dialog were used as interludes in the soundtrack and, unbeknownst to Jewel, the limit in 10 seconds. Not only was he exceeding the time limit, the dialog he was using was from outtakes rather than the film.

“We had to deal with (Screen Actors Guild) for a month because no one had ever done a soundtrack that way,” says Jewel, who will be pressing 20,000 copies of the three-LP soundtrack in Portland, Ore., France, Australia and Japan. “At one point my manager was on the phone with six people from SAG saying it’s never been done.”

They created a formula for Jewel to use to compensate the actors: Their day rate plus 17.4 percent of the day rate to cover SAG dues.

“I had the freedom to do whatever I wanted and I wanted to augment the experience of the film,” he says. 

Jewel, born John Padgett and raised in Texas, and Gosling met five years ago when the actor, a fan of Chromatics and Glass Candy, reached out to the musician to gauge his interest in scoring a film that would become Drive. He submitted music -- and the longest cue in the film is his -- but ultimately Cliff Martinez got the job.

Gosling casually mentioned the Lost River script to Jewel in February 2013 and shooting began in April while Jewel was on tour. Still, Jewel was able to send Gosling about five hours of music to consider.

As in all of his projects, both film music and recording projects, Jewel starts by determining the atmosphere and characters and from there exploring melodic ideas. Lost River was swampy and deteriorating.

“When I first read the script, the two recurring themes were water and metal, the two things that defined what the characters are struggling with,” Jewel says. “People are trying to make ends meet through metal” -- stripping copper from abandoned buildings is a key revenue source in Lost River’s version of Detroit -- “and the main character is working on his car, also metal, to get away from town and the water.”

Jewel used a waterphone, a metal percussion instrument called to provide a recurring gong-like sound inspired by High Noon. Wind chimes were used, he says, “to represent the characters having a lack. The idea sonically was to have tones that would be individual, build and overlap. As things become more heightened, the wind chime becomes violent, more metallic, more stressful.”

One of the scrapped pieces from the score that wound up on the soundtrack is a theme Jewel wrote for the toddler in the film, Frankie. He gutted a Fisher-Price wind-up record player  and created a theme for Frankie out of “Oh Where Has My Little Dog Gone,” “Humpty Dumpty” and “Edelweiss.”

“His relationship to the metal is more innocent,” Jewel observes.

After Jewel finished the score to Lost River, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May and saw Gosling trashed in reviews, he resumed work on the next Chromatics album, Dear Tommy. The songs for the album have been finished for some time and he delayed the album’s release from an announced Valentine’s Day onsale when it appeared Lost River would be coming out at about the same time.

He now has Dear Tommy targeted for between May 15 and his birthday on May 31, though he still has a couple of decisions to make.

“When I make a pop album I make between five and 15 versions of each song and then decide which edit of the song to use,” he says. “I don’t change the sequence, but I try different versions and think about how it informs the entire record. As a producer I need rules and for me, the rule is the flow of the album.

“The album is 80 minutes long so I might listen to it 20 times in a certain way. I really get into the minutiae of it. I still need to make final decisions on two of the songs and though it is a little OCD to do it this way, I think that’s what makes my records stand up. I know for a fact  that I did the best I could and the best with what I had.”