'Jackie' Shows A First Lady Behind Closed Doors — But The Music Is Front And Center The score for the new film, which stars Natalie Portman as Jacqueline Kennedy grappling with the death of her husband, was written by 29-year old English composer Mica Levi (a.k.a. Micachu).

'Jackie' Shows A First Lady Behind Closed Doors — But The Music Is Front And Center

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Finally today, the movie "Jackie." It premiered in theaters across the country this weekend. It stars Natalie Portman as the late Jacqueline Kennedy as she grapples with the death of her husband, President John F. Kennedy. And you could argue that Portman's co-star is not another actor, but the film's score. It was composed by young British musician Mica Levi. Tim Greiving explains.

TIM GREIVING, BYLINE: "Jackie" starts with a blank, black screen underscored by Mica Levi's melting strings.

(SOUNDBITE OF MICA LEVI SONG, "JACKIE ALBUM INTRO")

GREIVING: Throughout the film, music plays a much more prominent role than it does in most movies. And Chilean director Pablo Larrain made it loud, front and center.

PABLO LARRAIN: Sometimes the music is very present, and sometimes music it's hiding behind. But when it's present, it's really present. And it's all over the place. It's important to deliver, like, a strong attitude when you want to. When you want to say something, you say it. And when you want to play the music, you play it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MICA LEVI SONG, "CHILDREN")

MICA LEVI: It was unexpected that he turned it up in that sense which is cool, I guess.

GREIVING: Twenty-nine-year-old composer Mica Levi had no idea the director was going to feature her music so prominently.

LEVI: It elevates the surreal element because music creates a layer of fantasy because it doesn't exist in real life in the way that it does in these films. By putting music underneath it makes it not real, gives you access to your imagination differently.

GREIVING: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JACKIE")

NATALIE PORTMAN: (As Jackie Kennedy) A very bad man hurt daddy. Daddy would come home if he could, but he can't. He has to go to heaven.

SUNNIE: (As Caroline Kennedy) Can I say goodbye?

PORTMAN: (As Jackie Kennedy) Yes. Of course you can, my love.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy.

GREIVING: Larrain says that Levi's sometimes ambiguous score reminds us this isn't a documentary.

LARRAIN: What I wanted to do is to take the film into a non-realistic place where time - it's something that is hard to understand and is more psychological and emotional everything that's going on and the experience of watching the film. And so the music is a dreamy situation that is not concrete.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JACKIE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) My soul waits for...

(SOUNDBITE OF MICA LEVI SONG, "CHILDREN")

BEN CROLL: The score becomes a character in the movie.

GREIVING: Ben Croll is a freelance film critic based in Paris who writes for IndieWire and The Wrap.

CROLL: Because the film doesn't really rely on big talky sequences and doesn't really set any kind of narrative. 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's just there, and you are confronted with it. And you are confronted with her grief.

GREIVING: In his review of "Jackie" for IndieWire earlier this year, Croll wrote that the film relied on the music too much, but after seeing it a second time, he changed his mind.

CROLL: I was like, no, you know what? It actually works a lot better than I thought it did.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JACKIE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Welcome to Arlington, Mrs. Kennedy.

PORTMAN: (As Jackie Kennedy) Thank you.

GREIVING: The soundtrack for "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 and the Shapes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EASY")

MICACHU AND THE SHAPES: (Singing) Just leave the rest for me. Just leave the rest for me. Just leave the rest for me. Just leave the rest to me. I'm easy to please. I'm easy to please.

GREIVING: But in 2013, she grabbed the movie world's attention with her first score for Jonathan Glazer's strange horror movie "Under The Skin."

(SOUNDBITE OF MICA LEVI SONG, "CREATION")

GREIVING: Levi used some of the same techniques for "Jackie." 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. And on top of that, director Pablo Larrain took some of the pieces she sent him and put them in unexpected places.

LARRAIN: When I'm an audience, I don't like when the filmmakers tell me all the time what to think and what to feel. And complexity would help to deliver something that I think is essential to cinema, that is ultimately the audience who will determine what are we looking at by our own feelings?

GREIVING: Larrain gave Mica Levi an unusual amount of freedom to compose the kind of music she wanted. Her instinct, she says, was to write music she thought Jackie Kennedy would have liked.

LEVI: I had read the script. It was quite dynamic, and it showed her sass. And I think just from that had some ideas in my head of her. That's all I could really do - you know what I mean? - is concentrate on her because that's all I had to go with. I'll write some Jackie Kennedy music.

GREIVING: Not always music the former first lady might have listened to, but music to give voice to her unescapable grief. For NPR News, I'm Tim Greiving in Los Angeles.

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