Mica Levi strips back emotional layers in 'Under the Skin' score

Composer Mica Levi's creeping score for 'Under the Skin' supplies the film's emotion dialogue

In Jonathan Glazer's 2013 art-horror film, "Under the Skin," Scarlett Johansson plays a flesh-dissolving alien seducing desperate, lonely men. While writing the film's score, 26-year-old composer Mica Levi looked to a similar real-life setting for inspiration.

"I was kind of inspired by strip club music," Levi said about the creeping, repetitive string motifs that define the film's sound.

So perhaps it's fitting that Levi will conduct the Los Angeles live debut of the score at a venue, the Regent Theater in downtown Los Angeles, that in a different era used to screen adult movies. Levi will lead players from the New York City combo Wordless Music Orchestra and the L.A. group wild Up to perform the score at two live screenings (at 7 and 10 p.m. Tuesday) of the film.

As younger audiences see fewer rules around the cultures of serious film and composing, this "Under the Skin" performance series is an intriguing crossover: a boozy, creepy creature-feature presented onstage with a modern, ethereal beauty.

Levi, who trained in composition at London's Guildhall School of Music and Drama, first turned American ears with her band Micachu and the Shapes, a playful and restless indie outfit built on junkshop acoustic sounds and hyped-up drum machines. But her score for "Under the Skin" radically remade her career as a composer.

Her spooky, edging-on-atonal arrangements (frequently compared to fellow British rocker Jonny Greenwood's menacing arrangements for Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood") are arguably the film's emotional centerpiece, even more than its sparse and often improvised dialogue. As Johansson's character picks up unsuspecting men around Glasgow, she lures them to a grisly but visually mesmerizing fate.

Levi's string motifs underline the film's slinky sense of dread. The Gyorgi Ligeti-inspired flurries on "Creation" sound like insects swarming a hive, and the recurring three-note howl of "Death" suggests imminent violence. But the reverbed snares and sad, noisy bends of "Lonely Void" and "Love" could fit on a record by a composer like Iannis Xenakis or a band like Health — and maybe even a Drake single.

"The music acts as her feelings," Levi said, describing the score as less of a narrative cue than a real-time response to the film's unnerving imagery. "The point was to follow the story of a being who does something bad but becomes good. [Glazer] told me that we want to hate her, then love her, then miss her."

Levi also emphasized that, in a time when expansive film scores can be composed on an iPad, one of her self-imposed limitations was that her work had to be able to be performed live by a small orchestra. That made "Under the Skin" an ideal film for this kind of live project. The music is austere and formally inventive but gasp-out-loud creepy when treated like a midnight movie.

"The score sounds like it's underwater, like it's coming from the place where all these men end up going," said Christopher Rountree, the founder of wild Up. "Because of the lack of dialogue, the music becomes the dialogue, which is even more interesting to me."

Glazer, who began his career in music videos and commercials before turning to features, understands how striking, unresolved imagery can hint at deeper emotions than a clear narrative explanation can offer. While visually and musically rigorous, the film had elements of chance. Many of the actors in "Under the Skin" were unwitting amateurs initially filmed on hidden cameras with spontaneous dialogue.

Levi and Rountree are both part of a generation of composers and performers who, having grown up after postmodernism and the Internet, use their music to articulate a confusing new mix of alienation and connection in contemporary life. Rountree thinks that collaborations like this are part of how art, music and film will interact in modern, resonant ways for younger crowds.

"It's exactly what L.A. needs right now," he said. "We're almost at a point where all music is presented equally, and classical music is finally stopping that contest between who can be more technically perfect onstage and who can be the most quiet in the audience."

These two live Regent performances will introduce a new layer of live, human tension to a movie about the perils of emotions. Levi said Johansson's character "feels these quite teenager-y and extreme emotions — love, violence, letdown — and then nothing" but "puts the whole thing kind of at risk by trying to integrate and act on her feelings."

If those feelings get too intense at the Regent, the strippers at Spearmint Rhino are just a few blocks away.

Twitter: @AugustBrown

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"Under the Skin" with Mica Levi, wild Up and Wordless Music Orchestra

Where: Regent Theater, 448 S. Main St., L.A.

When: 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. Tues., Jan. 6.

Tickets: $23-$38

Info: http://www.theregenttheater.com/

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