A musical hint comes at the very start of “Bullet Train,” out now, when a new version of the Bee Gees’ disco classic “Stayin’ Alive” is sung in Japanese – because an American assassin code-named Ladybug (Brad Pitt) is going to spend the next two hours attempting to do just that, battling half a dozen other killers on a high-speed train from Tokyo to Kyoto.
An over-the-top movie like “Bullet Train” demanded an over-the-top score, composer Dominic Lewis (“The King’s Man”) decided, and he spent more than a year not only writing the entire score but also producing (and in several cases co-writing) the songs heard throughout David Leitch’s action thriller.
Leitch’s previous movies (“Atomic Blonde,” “Deadpool 2”) have been littered with songs, Lewis knew (“he’s a needle-drop guy”), so his concept became: “Can I write something in the style of a needle-drop, that feels like a song but is doing the job of scoring, following the peaks and troughs of what’s going on?”
While Lewis trained in classical music at London’s Royal Academy of Music, he also spent time in rock bands before launching a career in movie music. “I became a mad scientist,” he says, noting that the “Bullet Train” assignment began during COVID lockdown, so he is playing guitars, bass, keyboards and singing throughout the entire score.
“It’s very raw and deliberately messy,” Lewis concedes. “It’s all vibe and no technique. That’s a lot of what rock ‘n’ roll is about. It’s about attitude, and I really wanted to convey that.”
There are strange wordless vocals throughout, and according to Lewis, “the main solo voice is an enka singer,” a form of traditional Japanese singing. “It’s so unique in its style, the vibrato is so emotional.” It’s the score’s only nod to traditional Japanese music; he uses no Japanese instruments.
He came up with a series of songs as basic material for several of the film’s main characters. “Le Despedida,” sung in Spanish by 22-time Latin Grammy winner Alejandro Sanz, was written for the Wolf (played in the film by Bad Bunny). “My Time to Shine,” performed by UPSAHL, started as the theme for Prince (Joey King).
“Kill Me Pretty” is Lewis’s “fate” theme “done in a ’70s rock vibe” and sung by Japanese singer Tamio Okuda, while the two more familiar tunes, newly produced by Lewis – “Stayin’ Alive” and the century-old “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” – are sung by Japanese singer Avu-chan and 86-year-old ’60s crooner Engelbert Humperdinck, respectively.
Humperdinck, maybe the most offbeat choice of all, was recruited because Lewis had spotted a West Ham United football club sticker on the back of the cell phone of Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), and the composer remembered that the team’s theme song was “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles,” written in 1918 and a hit in British music halls during the 1920s.
“Let’s do an arrangement with a ’60s, Vegas, go-go vibe,” was Lewis’s thought and, as it happens, Humperdinck lives in Los Angeles. They recorded at legendary Capitol Studios, again part of Lewis’s plan to create a sound that spanned popular music genres from the ’60s and ’70s through ’80s synths and ’90s grunge rock.
Lewis even got to write the cheesy synth kiddie-show TV theme for the Momomon character in costume on the train. Finally, as the reason for the car-to-car mayhem becomes clear and the train careens out of control, “I needed a huge orchestra to bring it all home.” A 70-piece orchestra recorded for two days at Sony to cap off the score.
For a further twist, “we put pretty much everything, including the strings, through a tape machine. We would add wow and flutter, get things to bend, and just make it sound like an old sample.”
Leitch encouraged experimentation, Lewis says: “David said, ‘You can do anything you want and if it’s too much I’ll pull you back. Just swing for the fences, be bold and have fun.’ And that’s what it was.”
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