Unlike most films, Looper starts off with only ambient noise – the sound of the wind and the rustling of leaves fill the space, but as we look upon a stone faced man wielding a gun these every day sounds we rarely notice take on a new feeling and become almost as foreboding as the use of sorrowful strings or rumbling percussion. A single shot breaks this near silence and with it, Nathan Johnson’s futuristic and industrial score comes in.
Johnson has been no stranger to giving audiences peeks at his process for creating Looper’s score and there is little question why – it’s pretty damn cool. Rather than simply turning to a full-bodied orchestra to expand on the various characters’ emotions and set the frenetic pace of the film, Johnson took found sounds (a car door slamming shut, an industrial fan, the vibration of a door stopper) and used these sounds as his instruments while still infusing and pairing them with more standard instrumentation, creating a score that is both familiar and inventive. He even went so far as to build new instruments by combining normal instruments (a marxophone) with unique sounding elements (an appropriately selected gat gun) making the score feel off-putting, but still grounded in the fabric of the narrative.
As a film that takes place in 2042, it becomes clear that technological advances have not stopped and a more industrialized world has formed making Johnson’s combination of instruments with more mechanical sounds fit right into the framework of the rough and unpolished world director Rian Johnson has created. While we do travel across different time periods to tell the story of both young Joe (Joesph Gordon-Levitt) and older Joe (Bruce Willis), the fact that the score is equal parts current and futuristic allows us to move seamlessly through these different spaces, further hinting at this idea of a loop where things constantly recycle and come back around again.
The track “A Day in the Life” reflects a typical day in young Joe’s life and, as the music suggests, it is a life full of struggle, repetition, and unnerving moments. The notes in the piece seems to rub against each other until the friction finally comes to a head and finds some, albeit brief, release. This piece perfectly mirror’s young Joe’s life as he goes about his unusual job, day after day, and only seems relax once his drug infused eye drops hit his pupils.
Conversely, “A Life in a Day” looks back on (or forward on, depending on your perspective) older Joe’s life and unlike the majority of the score, sounds almost hopeful. But that feeling of a constantly looming threat is still present, tugging at the seams of this reality, threatening to destroy it. Despite taking place in the “future,” this track is made up of more “real” elements instead of created ones, ending in a simple piano refrain, a version of which notably appears again at the end of “Everything Comes Around.”
As the film unfolds, we begin to realize the choices and decisions young Joe makes affect older Joe and this idea that older Joe’s memories are prone to being erased or changed as young Joe moves through his life creates a fog around what is “real” and what is not. Johnson’s score helps keep those lines blurred through pieces like “Mining for Memories” where we pick up on a familiar sounding drum beat, but then find this beat altered and affected in “A New Scar,” bringing to life this idea of old memories getting replaced or shifted by new actions.
Looper may focus a bit more on the reasoning behind people’s actions (and the affect of those actions) rather than just the action itself, but the film certainly does not shy away from putting fist to face or gun to hand in those action driven moments between the more dramatic ones as these characters race against time and each other to do what each thinks is right. Johnson follows suit by providing the adrenaline rush one expects when watching an action scene, but does so in unexpected ways by using sounds you normally would not expect to hear as percussive elements. “Closing Your Loop” and “City Sweep” are certainly percussion driven pieces, but that percussion is created through new, almost odd, sounds making the pacing familiar, but feel slightly off.
Not only are we keeping track of how actions in one time period can affect the outcome in another, our lead is also a drug addict, constantly putting drops in his eyes to help blur his own reality. Johnson certainly plays into this idea of an altered state of mind, but does so constantly, not just when you see that a character may be high. This choice works to further enforce that idea of a seamless landscape where the sounds of a drug trip could just as easily be heard during a day time conversation in an empty diner as much as it would in a loud and crowded night club.
Looper teaches us that the future is based on the past and Johnson has created a score that is not simply devoid of the musical elements we have come to expect, but combines them with new sounds and ideas that draw on those of the past. “Time Machine” starts with effected sounding bells that eventually bring us into a refrain that sounds almost like a synthesized alarm while the beginning of “Revelations” features a simple, unaffected piano until it begins to combine back into those found and created sounds. It is this constant combination of old and new, expected and unexpected that work to not only keep you on your sonic toes, but also hint at the overall idea and meaning behind Looper itself.
The soundtrack for Looper is available on Cut Narrative.
1. “A Body That Technically Does Not Exist”
2. “A Day in the Life”
3. “Closing Your Loop”
4. “Seth’s Tale”
6. “A Life in a Day”
7. “Time Machine”
8. “Hunting the Past’
9. “Following the Loop”
10. “Mining for Memories”
11. “A New Scar”
12. “Her Face”
13. “City Sweep”
15. “The Rainmaker”
16. “La Belle Aurore”
18. “The Path Was a Circle”
19. “Everything Comes Around”
All songs on this soundtrack composed by Nathan Johnson.