2011 gave us a lot of great music (as I rounded up here), but there was one composer who stood out from the pack with his distinctive scores (two of which made my year-end list) for films that ranged from a backseat law practice (The Lincoln Lawyer) to a viral epidemic (Contagion) to a near silent stunt driver by day, getaway driver by night (Drive). Three very different films with three distinct scores, all from the same composer – Cliff Martinez.

Martinez has garnered the most attention and praise for his score for Drive, but he also created impressive (and memorable) music for The Lincoln Lawyer and Contagion. The Lincoln Lawyer may not have been the biggest hit at the box office, but it was a decent film and it stood out in my mind more than I thought it would, thanks to its music. The same was the case with Contagion, a film I enjoyed well enough, but kept thinking back on thanks to its score. When I looked into who was behind these scores it was no surprise when I came to find Martinez behind the conductor’s baton for both.

While Trent Razor and Attics Ross grabbed an Oscar back in February for their electrified score for The Social Network and electronic artists such as The Chemical Brothers and Basement Jaxx have started trying their hands at composing, Martinez seems to also have his finger on the pulse of the electronic score movement, perhaps more so than the rest of his colleagues. His scores work to push the boundaries of modern composing, infusing electronic elements and sounds into more classic orchestration to create music that is both interesting and engaging.

Having started out as a drummer (most notably for the Red Hot Chili Peppers), Martinez understands percussion and that knowledge shines through in his tight beats that keep his scores from becoming monotonous or boring. As Martinez details in an interview he did about creating the score for Drive, the instrument he always tries to incorporate in his scores is the bashed crystal which helps create his distinctive sound and haunting melodies.

Although this element is the thread that ties each of these scores to Martinez, each is unique in their own way and reflects each story they are helping to tell. With The Lincoln Lawyer, the score is similar to the ethereal sound of Drive, but leans more on wind instrumentation rather than synthesizers when the action gets turned up. The score for Contagion was almost the theme for the virus itself – unnerving and never quite what you would expect with the electronic elements that came together here working to create a sound that will always be synonymous with this film. And while the music from Kavinsky and Desire are pretty much tantamount with Drive, Martinez’s score links these songs together within the fabric of the film and fills those quiet moments of meaningful looks or unforgettable action with score that heightened the feelings or intensity being portrayed on screen.

With all the impressive music that accompanied film this year, it was quite a feat to create not only one, but three scores that stood out and elevated films that may have otherwise been forgettable. While there were certainly other talented composers who created impressive scores this year and ones that created a much higher volume of work (looking at you, Alexander Desplat), Martinez succeeded in composing work that were each distinct in their own right while still sounding decidedly Martinez and giving us an exciting glimpse into where film composing may be going.

Martinez is on deck to compose the score for next year’s Arbitrage (set to premiere at Sundance) and will team back up with Drive director Nicolas Winding Rein (and Ryan Gosling) on the score for Only God Forgives. From what we have seen (and heard) from Martinez this year, I look forward to hearing what he has up his sleeve for his next projects.


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