Earlier this month, AMPAS unveiled its list of 91 songs eligible in the Original Song category at the 89th Academy Awards, one of which was “Gold,” a song for Stephen Gaghan’s film of the same name, marking a collaboration between Gaghan, composer Daniel Pemberton, prolific producer-songwriter Danger Mouse, and stylistically diverse punk icon Iggy Pop.
Though the song was a highly collaborative effort among four likeminded jacks-of-all-trades, the process of finding the film’s musical palette—and its distinctive Old West-tinged title track—began with Pemberton. Currently at work on Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur, which involves “a lot of me screaming and breathing,” Pemberton was typically irreverent and resourceful in putting together the score for Gaghan’s Gold. “I don’t try and do conventional film scores, if possible,” the composer says, noting the director’s passion and commitment to exploring out-of-the-box possibilities.
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Like Pemberton’s Macintosh- and ‘80s-infused score for Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs, the score for Gold emerged from a process of continued discovery, with one sound, in particular, becoming a key inspiration. “On this, I just thought, ‘Hey, gold is a good place to start.’ Just try and do stuff with metal,” he explains. Pemberton researched bells and gongs, even looking at a solid gold gong made for German fine-art photographer Wolfgang Tillmans, before reaching a turning point.
“I was just watching the film again and I was like, “Oh my God. That is the noise. That’s an amazing noise that no one’s used before in a piece of music,” Pemberton continues. “It’s a noise that everyone knows, subconsciously. It’s kind of the sound of modern capitalism. It’s the sound of the American Dream. It’s the sound of success. It’s the New York Stock Exchange bell.”
Employing this distinctive sound—a multipurpose tool accessible through common resources—Pemberton made various discoveries along the way, finally landing on several musical variations. “What was fascinating about that bell was it was so tight. It’s not like it goes in and out of time,” he recalls. “It’s so tight and it’s totally in G. It’s not like a bit off G. It’s pitch perfect.” The raw materials were all there—the bell was derived directly from the film’s title, rang out on pitch, and was relentlessly propulsive, as was Matthew McConaughey’s Kenny Wells in his endless pursuit of gold from within the Indonesian jungle, in spite of all obstacles in his path.
“The film’s a really fast-moving story. Kenny’s on this relentless search. He just keeps on going, and this bell just keeps on going. I started building stuff around that, with rhythms,” Pemberton says. “Then I thought, ‘What else can we do with it?’ We slowed it down, re-pitched it, and it became like a building block for a lot of the cues in the film. You could make it dark and ominous. You could make it light and strange. It was a really great starting block for how I wrote the score.”
Though the bells—at various pitches and speeds—are an integral part of the film’s sound, Pemberton also cultivated great diversity within the score, as a result of the needs of the story and his own restless, innovative drive. There’s the softer guitar pieces, establishing “the human heart” of Kenny and Kay; flute-driven, bass-thumping sequences, emphasizing the texture and quality of the jungle space McConaughey inhabits in the film; and more traditional orchestral music, for what Pemberton refers to as “Kenny’s big dream.”
“It’s not a conventional movie. If you explain this movie, it’s quite hard to explain it in a one-liner,” Pemberton admits, acknowledging the necessity of different moods, which also ultimately work in a kind of unity. “It’s not like an action film, it’s not a thriller, it’s not a relationship story, but it is all those things.”
As far as instrumentation, Pemberton was thorough in his research, while reserving the right to flesh out the score through imagination, alone. At times “persnickety” about detail and cultural or historic accuracy, Pemberton looked to the instrumentation of Indonesia on the project—the gamelan, for example—but ultimately found an invented sound that worked for the feelings conjured by the movie. One particular sound of note in the film’s score involves sliding, ominous strings—what the composer refers to as “string glissandos,” recorded at double speed. “We’d record them at twice the speed and twice the pitch. We would do things like that to just give it this unusual texture,” he says.
In discussing his contributions to the title track, “Gold,” Pemberton emphasizes his respect for the writing chops of Gaghan and his collaborators. “You’ve got to remember, he’s a great writer, Stephen. He wrote some beautiful lyrics,” he says, while noting his long-time appreciation for the work of Danger Mouse. “‘Doubled up and doubled down.’ I love that line.”
A friend of Gaghan’s, Danger Mouse was at top of mind for the director when looking to execute the song. Imagining the vocals to come while listening to Pemberton’s arrangements for “Gold,” Danger Mouse immediately thought of longtime friend Iggy Pop, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee behind proto-punk band The Stooges, with whom he’d never previously collaborated. With only “a few days off between gruelling tours,” Pop hoped for a beach day, but instead found himself back in the studio.
“My initial reaction was, ‘We’re going to get some goddamn director who doesn’t know fuck all about music, whose taste is shit, who’s probably already temped some other goddamn song,’ Pop recalls. “And [Danger Mouse] just said, ‘No, no listen. This is a really good film.'”
While Iggy Pop had contributed music to a wide range of films over the years, from Trainspotting to Repo Man to Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Danger Mouse was relatively new to composing music for film—though some of that same skepticism was there. “I tried things like that in the past, but it really turned me off, the process,” Danger Mouse says, while recalling one positive experience working alongside U2 on the song “Ordinary Love,” featured in Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. “But this one, the director really had a good strong sense of what he wanted and the control that was necessary to see it all the way through.”
From a craft perspective, the thing Danger Mouse finds most commendable about Gaghan is his respect for musicians and their process. Though Gaghan provided poetry and some lyrics that found their way into the final song, the director was cognizant of problems that arise when there are “too many cooks in the kitchen.”
In pitching Iggy Pop on the project, and the tone of the piece he had in mind, Danger Mouse made reference to some of Pop’s previous work—specifically, his 2009 non-rock album Préliminaires, featuring the track “I Want to Go to the Beach.” “It’s a miserable number, but I love it,” Pop laughs. “My miserable songs are much closer to me, personally, than my rock songs. They’re not fun, but all of life is not fun either.” Of course, there was one other major influence that Danger Mouse wore on his sleeve. “The song needed a singer who was more conversational and more subtle and so I immediately thought of a delivery of something like a Leonard Cohen kind of thing,” he explains. Tellingly, Pop came around to the same idea before Danger Mouse could explain it himself.
Per Pop, Danger Mouse had his hand in the entire musical process, from songwriting to the final mix, allowing him to focus primarily on delivering the vocals. “He directed the session, directed the vocal down to very, very fine points. Like, the vowel pronunciations. ‘Don’t say the, say the.’ Things like that,” he explains.
“Danger Mouse has very good manners. Not all music people do. Some of them come at you with a fucking baseball bat.” he continues. “So, we went through the initial thing of, ‘Would you be good singing this, this way? Do you like this part before this part?’ I did my best, but finally let him know, ‘Look, I like what you like in this.’” Ultimately, though, the singing itself was no easy task. “I sang for about three hours, nonstop,” he explains. And after around 60 takes, in a challengingly low vocal range that left him dizzy, Pop had contributed his part.
Reflecting back on the experience, both Danger Mouse and Iggy Pop agree that the most important thing—in a period film, or any other— is wearing certain influences on one’s sleeve without aping them, allowing for something fresh to present itself that can function as well independently as it would within the film’s context. “Late ‘80s is not an easy genre. We just went more with fitting in with the score than necessarily trying to have a song that sounded like that period,” Danger Mouse says.
“The eighties sucked man,” Pop says, sardonically.
To view a video exclusive, in which Daniel Pemberton discusses the meticulous process of composing the Gold score, click here.
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