'Zola' Movie Soundtrack: Film Composer Mica Levi's Psychedelic Sounds - Rolling Stone
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The Engrossing, Psychedelic Sounds of Mica Levi

The 34-year-old artist on scoring ‘Zola,’ and how a nontraditional approach has turned the musician in to one of the most in-demand film composers today

Mica LeviMica Levi

Mica Levi, the composer of 'Zola.'

Leah Walker

It’s the start of July in southeast London, and Mica Levi is enjoying a rare, semi-hot day in their garden. They can’t quite remember when they handed in the final music files for Zola. “It’s kind of a bit of a blur, to be honest with you,” Levi tells Rolling Stone, adding that they didn’t know the film hit theaters this week: “Is it out yet?”

“That’s cool,” the musician-turned-composer says in a disarmingly bashful manner when a journalist and complete stranger informs them of all the fans praising their score work on Twitter these days. That’s the thing about Levi, though. They appear to live in their own little kaleidoscopic bubble, which allows them to take a pure, almost infantile approach to their work. Think about the phenomenalism of a baby finally realizing that the fleshy, pronged thing they’ve been staring at for months is a hand; that’s kind of how Levi approaches art, and it’s a big part of what makes each of their scores — 2013’s Under the Skin, 2016’s Jackie, 2019’s Monos, and 2021’s Zola — so unique.

Levi, who began studies at Britain’s oldest music school, the Purcell School for Young Musicians, at nine years old, gathers all the skills that come from being a classically trained child of a music professor and cello teacher and flips them on their head. They take their undeniable musicality and fling it out wildly like Jackson Pollack would approach a painting, continuously creating something beautiful out of an unexpected use of the same instruments, plug-ins, and production software every professional has access to. Levi was already gaining steam with band Micachu & The Shapes, which formed in 2009 and has since evolved into Good Sad Happy Bad, before they started booking composing gigs, but the world of film provided the sort of no-holds-barred Wild West Levi needed to truly stretch their creative muscles.

Familiar with Levi’s art-punk approach to pop music, director Jonathan Glazer called the then-25-year-old out of the blue to work on Under the Skin — in which Scarlett Johansson plays an extraterrestrial creature who seductively lures and then preys on human men. Sonically, Levi’s first film is equal parts shrill and echoey. This score, which blends orchestration with modern production and otherworldly synths is sinister, but in a sadistic way that can’t be taught. (Perhaps most memorable is the cacophony of erratic, distorted violas, which almost sounds like of a swarm of bees.) In Jackie, which trails Jackie Kennedy Onassis in the days following her husband’s assassination, lead actress Natalie Portman expresses a lot of emotion without words, and the score kind of becomes its own character — like it’s the woman’s rage, which often bubbles below a thick layer of grief, personified. Jackie‘s score is very orchestral, in the more traditional sense of the word, and booming. And while Monos bears a resemblance to Under the Skin, it’s still its own beast. There, flutes, whistling sounds, and Timpani drums take more control, bringing forth a tribal element.

Levi admits they’re not interested in being known for a “signature sound” — at least not in the way that most think about such a concept. For example, when someone hears a John Williams melody, it wouldn’t be surprising for them to instantly recognize that it’s a John Williams melody. (Case in point: Harry Potter, Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones, and Star Wars.) But, for Levi, the “signature sound” is about “pacing and placing.” “Those sort of decisions, to me, can be more distinctive than melodic material,” they say. “Maybe a ‘signature sound’ can be more to do with how sound interacts with a film, as opposed to what the texture of the sound is.”

Enter Zola — dear, sweet, tantalizing, Zola. The film, which is based on a Twitter thread about a stripper’s road trip gone absolutely haywire, represents a leap in Levi’s career. Funnily enough, Levi doesn’t even have a Twitter account. “I’m pretty terrible at the internet,” they admit, before asking if tweets still had character restrictions these days. “I lose too many phones to keep up with it anyway. I don’t how you hold on to these things. They’re so slippery.” I can’t help but laugh.

Unlike the darker projects they’ve taken on, the more comedic, dialogue-heavy, and quickly paced Zola doesn’t provide a blank canvas in the way that Levi’s previous projects have. “[The characters] are in very musical environments,” they explain. “It’s not an abstract environment. They’re working in clubs. They’re working in parts of America that have whole specific scenes of music.” So, Levi was challenged with creating a score that stands out just enough, so as to not take away from that already-vibrant culture. “I read the script and was like, ‘Woah, this isn’t what I usually do,'” they say. “I felt like everything was going in a certain direction [career wise], so I was interested in the request — because I guess I found it a bit surprising. It felt like a different area, but it still had a lot of surreal, mesmerizing things going on.”

While the sounds are certainly surreal and mesmerizing at times, they’re also more intentional than those adjectives imply. The harp, in particular, creates an intriguing, reoccurring theme. In retrospect, Levi sees Zola as a hyper-modernized take on timeless Greek fantasies, which often center on epic journeys marked by adventure, bacchanal, greed, romance, and betrayal. “The harp is very attached to things like glamour, heaven, bliss, innocence, purity, and ancient realms,” Levi says. “The harp is so loaded. It’s also very effeminate. It’s so funny how all these instruments have human traits and ideologies attached to them.”

Throughout the film, there are many sounds reminiscent of jewelry boxes, toy pianos, and glockenspiels. These too convey themes of innocence — but, alternatively, they also suggest that the lead character is trapped in a game that their counterpart, an outlandish Lolita, is playing. “It’s probably a good mix of both of those things,” Levi confirms. “It must’ve all come from that sort of thing — being drawn to sweetness.”

As for those impossible-to-miss iPhone and Twitter-inspired bleeps and bloops, those were meant to be unsettling. “It was about taking little elements that were already in their psyche and trying to draw them in somehow,” Levi says. Presenting those sounds out of context is unexpectedly eerie, and I tell Levi that the choice reminds me of photographer Eric Pickersgill’s “Removed” series, wherein he edits smartphones out of people’s hands to show how lonely and zombified we all seem. “Totally. Wow. I’m going to check that out.”

Riley Keough (left) stars as "Stefani" and Taylour Paige (right) stars as "Zola" in director Janicza Bravo's ZOLA, an A24 Films release. Cr. A24 Films

Courtesy of A24

While Levi collaborated closely with director Janicza Bravo, they also had a lot of creative freedom. It’s the sort of balance Levi cherishes. “If a director says the right things to you, that are usually non-specific in terms of style and musical material, like they would an actor, then you’ll produce music soulfully. It will be something that they wouldn’t have thought of specifically and I wouldn’t have thought of specifically. That’s when it’s most successful, I think, because you get something that’s from the source of the film.”

The first time Bravo heard Levi’s work was in watching Under the Skin — the creation of which was, according to Levi, propelled by a similar working dynamic. “It’s not often that I walk away from something wishing I’d had a hand in it,” Bravo tells Rolling Stone. “What was particularly striking was the marriage of composition and world. They’re almost one in the same. There’s a saying that’s to effect of, ‘One can’t tell where the head begins and the ass begins?’ Is that a saying? What I mean is their work was so unified, so simpatico that one can’t imagine one without the other. Mica builds more than a score. The work is foundational. Another most necessary character in the life of the film.”

One of the few specific things that Bravo told Levi to take into consideration for implementation were sound baths. “Janicza talked a lot about crystal bowls and rose bowls, and those tones kind of being the inner-core of Zola’s navigation system.” Considering that Zola, the character and film’s namesake, serves as the one steady point in a cyclone of colorful chaos, this makes a whole lot of sense. Sound baths ground people in the way that Zola does to the story. When percussion jarringly infiltrates those hazy, sonic clouds, that’s how you know “something’s off, or going left,” as Levi puts it. Levi also explains that Zola was intended to be broken down, both sonically and visually, into three parts. “We talked a lot about that three-panel Hieronymus Bosch painting,” they say, referring to a famous piece from the early 16th century called The Garden of Earthly Delights.

In that way, Levi says they were also inspired by three-act operas — referencing both structure and pacing. Digital snares drive the 90-minute film forward, becoming increasingly more frenzied, and eventually alert the viewer to the ticking time bomb they’ve closed in on. But that use of percussion also shows how something once beloved can be detrimental in excess. “So, instead of being something that you’re dancing to, it’s something that’s hitting you in the face,” they say. “Something that they were supposed to be having fun to has now turned around and is punishing them. You know? Like, don’t eat too many crisps, because you’ll turn into a crisp. Don’t have too much fun, because, otherwise, that drum won’t stop playing.”

Riley Keough (left) stars as "Stefani" and Taylour Paige (right) stars as "Zola" in director Janicza Bravo's ZOLA, an A24 Films release. Cr. Anna Kooris / A24 Films

Courtesy of Anna Kooris / A24

While Levi’s latest score very well may thrust them into Hollywood’s shortlist of in-demand composers, they aren’t in the business of putting their name on as many projects as possible. “There are a lot of films that I really love, but it’s about knowing whether I’m suited to it,” they say. “That’s something I’m learning more and more. Sometimes I might be like, ‘This is really cool but I don’t think I can do it.’ It takes a lot out of you. I get really attached to what I’m involved with, so I think it’s worth being thoughtful. Because, usually, it’s like a long trip. I like it when I’m moved by… “

Their words trail off, which happens quite a bit in the 71-minute conversation. That’s not to say that Levi is disrespectful or unintelligent — quite the opposite, actually — they’re just so clearly immersed in the moment. Nothing about Levi is predetermined. They’re, in a way, like a sponge. “All the films I’ve worked on always draw something out of me that I wouldn’t have come up with on my own — without responding to the film, the director, all the conversations, and whatever else is going on at that time.”

Levi is not currently working on any films, nor do they have any confirmed on the horizon — and that doesn’t bother them. They’re not focused on what other rising composers are doing either. “I’m trying to catch up on the back catalogue of all of the amazing films that have been made,” they say. “I watch a lot of older stuff. A lot of the great composers drew inspiration from music that’s not from films, like classical music. I try to tap more into that, as well as where new music is going and different art forms or sources that inspire a type of thought — like visual art and books. If somebody says to me, ‘make music like this person,’ it’s a really uncreative space to be in, as opposed to someone saying, ‘make music that’s like this painting; make music that makes you feel big or small; make music that feels like a flower.”

They’re also not focused on expanding their skillset as much as they are their mind. “I think I just want to be engaged in the pursuit,” they say, explaining that their abilities sharpen naturally as they continue to play around with sound on a daily basis — without consulting any sort of rulebook or regimen. Levi stresses the importance of keeping “your spirit on point” and believes that different films “push [them] into new directions of understanding.” “It’s the surprises that happen when you put things to images or when the director summons something in me when I make a piece of music that I wouldn’t ever have made,” they say, adding that they like telling themself they “know nothing” at the start of every project. According to Levi, that’s their secret to success — in terms of being connected to the source of the film: “It’s to do with you trying to empty your mind totally of anything you’ve done before.”

“That’s the pursuit of having an engrossing, psychedelic life. I try to be open to everything. You think you might know something, so you have these barriers up that will hold it back. You have to make sure you don’t rest on your laurels even though you’re becoming more fluent.”

Levi makes a point to clarify that they’re not talking about drugs like LSD when they use the term “psychedelic”: Cinema itself can be a mind-expanding, almost-hallucinogenic trip. “There’s this amazing thing that movies can do,” says Levi. “They can take you into some crazy realms that are sort of experiencing things like time travel and memory.” Fired up, Levi goes on a tangent about 1979 film Stalker. “There’s this mad scene where they walk around the corner somewhere. They’re outside in a field. They go around the corner and you see a waterfall, you see water pouring, and you recognize that — but then they sort of walk around and go around it again, and you know that they’ve gone back in time or that something’s disrupted because one of the characters isn’t there and you can’t hear the waterfall anymore. That’s all they’ve done — taken out the sound of the waterfall — and they’ve basically played a magic trick on you. They’ve told you this place isn’t real; it’s a fabrication of the place you were just in.”

“I think music is a type of magic,” they say. “Music has strange capabilities that move people in certain ways. And film can suspend disbelief.”

In This Article: Soundtrack, Zola


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