Refn’s Only God Forgives: The Music of Cliff Martinez

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Today I was finally able to watch Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives and I ended up correctly predicting how I would feel about the movie: awed by the film’s neon and shadowed colors and blown away by its music. The composer for OGF, Cliff Martinez, did an amazing job and I wanted to learn more about the development of his tasteful score. In the bonus features on the DVD he takes ten to explain his technique, musical preferences, and his and Refn’s ideas of how the film’s music should sound in the final cut.

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Martinez spoke of how the creative process for Only God Forgives was very much unlike the techniques he was able to use when working on movie scores with other directors. Refn gave Martinez the script beforehand, allowing Martinez to imagine the movie in its entirety (which, he noted comically, had much more dialogue than the final cut) and to incorporate his own thoughts into the music. He said he wanted to create something of a modern feel yet also show tradition by incorporating folk instruments (keeping in mind the movie’s Bangkok setting) and sounds of a more older, romantic feel. Martinez talked about using organs, traditional folk instruments and synths, as well as the crystal baschet he took full advantage of in Refn’s Drive.

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The result was OGF‘s beautiful and chilling, contemporary yet traditional soundscape, successfully evoking the horror genre feel that Martinez said Refn wanted to create. Martinez also artfully crafted three karaoke pieces for the movie’s bold and unforgettable karaoke scenes. The climactic fight scene between Julian and Chang (“wanna fight?”) was practically defined by the rotating camera angles, quick cuts, and Martinez’s piece for the scene: a deliciously repetitive swirling of synth and organ that grounds the two men to the cold floor of the boxing club and creates its own darkness to mimic the cinematography, as Chang swings punch after pulpy punch. Martinez noted that he was able to tell big chunks of the story with his score (he details how Refn took out dialogue in one scene that was supposed to explain the backstory of Chang–the “Angel of Vengeance” — and left it up to Martinez to relate the cop’s mythical reputation).

The trailer — note: it showcases a lot of Martinez’s work annnnd nearly all of the film’s dialogue.


Martinez playing his beloved crystal baschet.


First karaoke scene.


One thought on “Refn’s Only God Forgives: The Music of Cliff Martinez

  1. Only God Forgives had produced such polarised reactions, but I love it for its brilliantly stylised cinematography and sounds. Cliff Martinez’s work is terribly underrated.Great feature. 🙂


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