As with most 2017 Oscars it’s up for, La La Land is the presumed favorite to win the best original score Academy Award. Which, no slur on that score, is too bad if only that it upholds a two-decade shut-out of female composers winning that category (and in fact, only three have won it in Oscar history).
It’s also a shame because Mica Levi’s score for Jackie is an invigorating, innovative wonder in an often stale category. While most film scores tend to rely on centuries-old formulas (slow piano pieces are sad, upward-climbing orchestral sweeps are victorious), Levi’s work on Jackie doesn’t cloyingly manipulate emotions as much as it creates a visceral reaction. When the film opens with a downward glissando, you get that feeling in your stomach that immediately follows learning someone you loved has died. The rest of the score draws less attention to itself, but nevertheless functions similarly, creating a sense of disbelief, confusion and loss without resorting to romanticist tropes — perfect for a film tackling one of the most traumatic incidents in American history (the assassination of JFK) and its muddled aftermath.
Prior to 2017, the last Oscar-nominated score this daring was the 2010 gold-grabbing one Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor created for The Social Network. And similar to Reznor, Levi got her first taste of acclaim in the rock world as the irresistibly melodic lo-fi mastermind behind U.K. outfit Micachu & the Shapes, whose debut Jewellery was 2009’s most underappreciated album. Similarly, when she made her film scoring debut in 2014 for the unsettling sci-fi art flick Under the Skin, her astonishing score flew a bit too under the radar for how excellent it was.
Fortunately, that’s turning around. The nomination for the Jackie score has helped the composer net substantial profiles in outlets such as Vogue and The New Yorker, something unthinkable five to seven years ago when she was playing DIY venues and getting most of her media attention from indie blogs such as BrooklynVegan. Now, thanks to the Oscar shine from Jackie, Levi may become a recurring name in film credits, and in the process, she could help push traditionalist Hollywood movie scoring into territory the classical world has already been exploring for decades.
But while industry optics for Levi are changing, she hasn’t. I’d chatted with her some seven years ago in New York City when she was touring with Micachu & the Shapes, and found her totally honest, endearingly aw shucks and — for someone classically-trained — impressively averse to academic “let’s talk about my art” conversations.
When I got her on the phone a few days prior to the Oscars, she was much the same: Easy-going, unashamed to honestly answer questions with a shrugging “I don’t really know,” and not hung up on details pertaining to Hollywood’s most glamorous night (When I asked if she’d planned what to wear, she replied, “That was going to be tomorrow’s thought process”).
Even if Levi doesn’t become just the fourth woman to win this Oscar category (and the first gay woman to win it) on Sunday (Feb. 26), I got the impression she’ll be fine as long as she can keep doing what she adores: Making music.
Here’s our conversation.
Congratulations on the Oscar nomination. What does that feel like?
Erm… I don’t know. I guess it is what it is. It’s very nice and surprising.
What was your immediate reaction when you found out?
I was like whoa, that’s crazy. I didn’t really think… my phone started ringing and blowing up and I was like [laughs]. It was sort of… a series of surprises. I didn’t really know what to think.
Let’s talk about the soundtrack to Jackie. It opens with that downward note, which comes out before we even see any images on screen. Why that choice?
Pablo [Larraín, the director] put that there. I sent him that piece of music toward the end of the process. He was like, “We need another bit of music and it needs to be expansive somehow and traumatized.” Well, I don’t remember the exact words he said, but I remember him trying to get a piece of music out of me and I sent him a few things and it wasn’t really working out, but then I sent him that and he was like, “Oh I really like that.” And it felt right [to me] over Lee Harvey Oswald; it’s just quite a surreal, bizarre thing, something you’d never expect, the f—ing madness of it all. So I guess if he was using that [at the beginning] he was using it where he thought it was appropriate to feel sick and messed up by the whole thing. To have that at the beginning made sense to introduce the fact that it starts out with trauma. But he put that there, I didn’t write it with that in mind.
How much did you compose compared to what’s in the movie?
Actually, I don’t remember but probably not much more than what is in there. He used the music to cut with and a lot of it stayed in there. I didn’t write too much more — I don’t think. I have a terrible memory so I could be wrong about that.
How fast was your turnaround for the score?
It felt pretty quick. I don’t know how “quick” quick is. I have two experiences really [scoring for films] but it felt pretty fast. In terms of the first bits, it felt really quick, then there was a gap in the middle and then another bit afterward.
Is it strange to hand over music and then not have final say over how it’s presented, as opposed to an album?
Well, I think with Pablo, if I felt strongly about something, he’d have my ear on it, but the two things are different. At the end of the day, if it’s not working [in the movie], it’s not working. It’s kind of nice because you’re putting your work against something else. And either you argue your point of why it does work or if it doesn’t work, then it can’t work. It answers a question for you. It always feels a bit obvious when something really works. When it doesn’t it feels a bit muddy, until you find something that does. With an album you’re not putting it up against an image so it’s different. I don’t think I really know how to make an album either.
Well I would disagree, I think you know how to make albums very well.
Oh, that’s nice.
Speaking of which, are you focusing on composition now or doing any work with the band?
I’m sort of always in the band even if not in record form. We’re always playing around London, it happens when it happens, and just putting my feet up now.
As for the Oscar, a woman hasn’t won this category in 20 years, and only three have overall. What are your thoughts on that?
Well, that’s not very many, so that’s a bit weird. I don’t know. Maybe that will change from now on, or maybe that won’t be the case anymore. I bet it won’t be because those things have seemed to change in other aspects of music, production, so hopefully. I heard they changed the Academy… voters?
Yes, they expanded the membership.
I feel like somebody gave me the impression it was more broad age-wise, more of a diverse crowd in the Academy. Maybe that means different ideas of what good and bad are will be in place. So maybe that will change things. I have to be honest, I don’t really know.
You’re very laid-back, so I have to ask if you’ve prepared a speech.
I don’t know, do you think I should?
It’s probably a good idea.
You’re not allowed to swear?
I mean, there’s a few second delay, so you might get away with it.
Hmm. There might be some quick editing then. I don’t really know. Yeah. I haven’t really thought about it… just going to try to take my time.
Well, the bigger concern is not swearing, really, but being played off with music.
Is that what happens? Mmm. Music torture. Okay, I didn’t know that. What happens if you haven’t thought of anything to say for 10 seconds?
The music gets louder until you go offstage.
That sounds like my alarm in the morning.
Of course, if you’re Meryl Streep they’ll let you talk longer. Other than not writing speeches, what’s your day to day life like these days?
Not necessarily on a project, but just working on music. That’s my favorite thing to do, so until I don’t get to do that every day for whatever reason that might be, I might as well do it as much as I can until that time.