The new film Jackie, opening in theaters across the country this weekend, begins with a blank, black screen, underscored by melting strings. It's our first indication that music will play a central role here, at times even more so than the title character.
Jackie stars Natalie Portman as Jacqueline Kennedy grappling with the death of her husband, President John F. Kennedy. Throughout the film, music plays a much more prominent role than it does in most movies. Director Pablo Larraín says certain moments call for the score to be loud, placed front and center. "It's important, I guess, to deliver a strong attitude when you want to," he says. "When you want to say something, you say it. And when you play the music, you play it."
Jackie's score was composed by 29-year-old British musician Mica Levi, who had no idea Larraín was going to feature her music so prominently. "It was unexpected that he turned it up in that sense," she says, laughing. But Levi likes what the use of music does for the film. "It elevates the surreal element, because music creates a layer of fantasy," she says.
So much of Jackie is conjecture about what the first lady did behind closed doors after her husband was shot next to her in Dallas. Larraín says that Levi's sometimes ambiguous score reminds us that this isn't a documentary. "What I wanted to do is to take the film into a non-realistic place," he says. "It's more psychological and emotional, everything that's going on."
Ben Croll, a Paris-based film critic, says the score takes on a unique role in a film short on heavy dialogue. "The score becomes a character in the movie," he says. "What you have is the emotion in Natalie Portman's eyes, and this music, which is extraordinarily striking. It doesn't fade into the background: It is just there and you are confronted with it, and you are confronted with her grief."
In his review of Jackie for Indiewire earlier this year, Croll wrote that the film relied too heavily on the music. After seeing it a second time, he says, he changed his mind: "It actually works a lot better than I thought it did."
Jackie is only Mica Levi's second film score. She's a classically trained violinist from south London whose first recorded efforts were singing and performing with her experimental pop band, Micachu & the Shapes. But in 2013, she grabbed the movie world's attention with her first score, for Jonathan Glazer's sci-fi horror film Under the Skin.
For Jackie, Levi used some of the same techniques she used for Under the Skin. Quivering, tremolo strings capture the character's inner turmoil — a stark contrast to her perfectly manicured public persona. Levi wrote a lot of the score without seeing the movie; on top of that, Larraín took some of the pieces she sent him and dropped them in unexpected places. "I don't like when the filmmaker's telling me all the time what to think and what to feel," Larraín says.
Larraín gave Levi an unusual amount of freedom to compose the kind of music she wanted. Levi says her instinct was to write music she thought Jackie Kennedy would have liked. "I had read the script, and it was quite dynamic and it showed her sass," Levi says. "All I could really do ... is concentrate on her, because that's all I had to go with."
What resulted is not always music the former First Lady might have listened to — but rather music to give voice to her inescapable grief.