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The Music of 'Uncut Gems' Makes It Feel Like the Future

The film's remarkable score from Oneohtrix Point Never solidifies the sci-fi sonic vision of directors Josh and Benny Safdie in the Adam Sandler-starring thriller.

by Phil Witmer
Dec 26 2019, 3:28pm

Uncut Gems literally begins with its boots on the ground, in the depths of an Ethiopian mine as two workers unearth the titular ore that will eventually take over the already-hectic life of a New York City jeweler half a world away. That jeweler, Howard “Howie Bling” Ratner, is played by Adam Sandler with enough fast-talking verve and dirtbag charm to power Manhattan ten times over. It might be the role of his lifetime, but the route the film takes to reach him is just as striking. The camera pushes into the Ethiopian opal, revealing nebulae and other cosmic structures within, all as starry synthesizers provide a bed for chanting male voices and pillowy sax lines. This is the first taste of Uncut Gems’ not-so-secret star: Daniel Lopatin’s score, and though the vista is perversely revealed to also be the interior of Howard’s colon, the spell has already been cast and a grimy crime thriller has now been framed as a quasi-mystical sci-fi saga thanks to the music.

Much of what Lopatin does here builds off his work as Oneohtrix Point Never, as well as his acclaimed score for 2017’s Good Time, also directed by Uncut Gems’ Josh and Benny Safdie. Under the sibling filmmakers, the two movies share not only a composer but a general framework: a mountingly stressful sprint through the New York underworld as an embattled protagonist comes up with schemes and deals on the fly in order to get what they want or merely survive. But while the Safdies visually continue from the down-to-earth Martin Scorsese and John Cassavetes traditions of telling proudly NYC stories in a loose-limbed fashion, the brothers' musical aesthetic is something entirely different—chilly electronic arrangements instead of the organic rock and soul of a Mean Streets. Lopatin’s score for Uncut Gems establishes once and for all that the Safdies have a coherent sonic vision for their work that places it closer to science fiction than crime cinema.

Much like in Good Time, Lopatin arranges his synths in skittering arpeggios and lyrical, piercing lead melodies. He also prefers spacey, modally mixed chord progressions, demonstrated in how both the introductory “The Ballad of Howie Bling” and the closing title track go from the major root chord to a flattened major third (i.e. C major to E-flat major). Lopatin has cited Vangelis as an inspiration for the Uncut Gems score, saying in an interview with Stereogum that he watched the Greek synth pioneer’s improv videos as a guide. The influence is apparent: “The Blade”’s shifting sequencer patterns draw from Vangelis’ 1976 piece “Spiral,” while the aforementioned modal mixture shows up in the composer’s French nature doc soundtracks. Naturally, the Blade Runner comparisons are inevitable, given that Vangelis is perhaps best known for that film’s much-imitated score, but there are other 80s sci-fi touchstones here. For example, the frantic tuned percussion and unearthly choirs of “Windows” are so reminiscent of the iconic introductory theme from Akira that it fooled this writer into thinking the Safdies had licensed the piece out upon first watch. Maybe the invocations of both that film and Blade Runner are intentional, though, casting the sonic trappings of the often-misinterpreted cyberpunk subgenre onto a high-strung but ordinary crime story. It would make sense with what the Safdies have done in their prior films.

The first sound in 2014’s Heaven Knows What, a harrowingly brutal yet swooningly romantic biography of star Arielle Holmes’ life as a homeless heroin addict, is the almost atonal burbling of synths, accompanying a passionate tarmac makeout. A short while later, pinging tones race around a tense emotional standoff and its eventual fallout. The electronic sounds, sourced mainly from a little-seen 70s Italian exploitation film and the works of composer Isao Tomita, clash with the unvarnished grit of the characters and setting. Ditto for Lopatin’s Good Time score, though that movie had trendy neon lighting to build off of, gesturing towards a general 80s pastiche. Uncut Gems is less overtly stylized, which only throws the alien textures of the music into sharper relief.

Author Bruce Sterling defined the stories of cyberpunk father William Gibson as fundamentally being about “high tech and low life,” a description that may also apply to those of the Safdies. Granted, Josh and Benny don’t have Robert Pattinson or Adam Sandler hacking into corporate-owned cyberspace or grafting machines onto their internal organs, but the nature of illicit transactions and negotiations in their NYC is abstracted through tech. Monetary sums are wired through rather than handed off, while split-seconds between smartphone messages are often the difference between life or death (the movie’s unerringly tense climax is also centered on information transmitted through various screens). In its own way, this gets to the heart of cyberpunk better than the many Blade Runner and Black Mirror clones that dot the libraries of streaming services; crime stories as a series of intangible transactions that don’t just include money and goods but social and cultural cache, best expressed in Uncut Gems through the staunchly Jewish Howard’s complex give-and-take relationship with his largely Black and gentile clientele.

Lopatin’s score explicitly dehumanizes the explosively human characters here, setting their visceral freakouts to music that is either mechanically precise or an ambient wash. This kind of counterintuitive electronic scoring may have first shown up this decade in David Fincher’s The Social Network, where Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross soundtracked the messy birth of Facebook with pulsing, pensive compositions. That was still a cooly delivered story about technology, though, whereas Uncut Gems is drenched in spit, sweat, and blood. The Safdies have been working on refining this unique juxtaposition over their last few films, and with this effort they seem to have finally nailed it. Whether upping the anxiety or lending a cosmic calm, Lopatin’s retrofuturist music challenges and enhances the tone of the onscreen events, but it also has the unforeseen benefit of bringing crime cinema into a future that—though formerly fiction—has mostly come true in recent years.

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

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Oneohtrix Point Never
Josh and Benny Safdie
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