Drive My Car amazed audiences and critics alike last year, winning awards left, right and centre at Cannes film festival and the Academy Awards. Being about a theatre director grieving the loss of his wife, its three hour running time has been described as ‘an engrossing and exalting experience’, and has been considered by many as one of 2021’s best films. However, what good film is anything without a great soundtrack?
Employing Japanese singer/composer Eiko Ishibashi, they took a risk with someone relatively new to the film-composing scene. A look at her scant IMDb page reveals only two other projects. But she certainly had the talents to match such a film.
And anyway, the film industry is rife with examples of popular songwriters turned movie-pantheons; look at Jonny Greenwood, or the five notes that won Trent Reznor's The Social Network an Academy Award. Risky bet or not, it seems to have worked in Ishibashi’s case. What we get is a mixture of Western-infused Japanese pop alongside modal jazz and even ambient musical influences, providing a simplicity that’s endearing; easily a match for any on-screen emotions.
The main Drive My Car track remains the most fully-formed piece on the album, with its mix of orchestral arrangements and home-spun charm, adding a claustrophobic electric keyboard and yearning harmonica melodies into the mix. The track feels the most substantial piece and the one that survives best apart from its on-screen accompaniment. It’s unashamedly melodic amid a time of Zimmer-like synthesisers and drum machines, almost romantic even. Simply put, it’s a nice piece of music, film or no film.
However, it does well to reflect its movies sensitive themes and wistful emotions as well. There’s always a sense of restraint, even as its wide variety of timbral colours continue to pile on. The jazzy rhythms keep things moving smoothly, stopping it from getting too wrapped up in the sweetness of the strings, complete with sugary tremolos and legato swirls. She certainly knows what she’s doing with these kinds of forces.
The rest of the work is more ambient, setting the scene but remaining firmly in the background. Jazz has a big part to play here, what with it seeming the only language the drums speak. The classic jazz-trio arrangement of piano, drums and bass forms the heart of the music; however, it’s an awkward fix. The bass often doesn’t seem to want to move, instead providing a one-note pulse to the rest of the rhythm, enhancing the stillness of the remaining ensemble whilst remaining content on its own.
As for the drums, they can’t really contain themselves. They give a lively sentiment that goes against the overt sentimentality of the remaining ensemble. SAAB 900 is a good example, with a background of string harmonics evoking a certain stillness that the rhythm section seems determined to break.
This apparent disconnect between the variety of genres used encapsulates the strained emotions of the characters, such as the protagonist’s confused feelings towards his wife. Despite grieving for her, he must also live with the knowledge she wasn’t always faithful to him, something he failed to confront her about in life. The musical surface is still and contemplative, but there’s something about the rhythm and harmonies that's hopeful he can find solace.
The final bonus track on the album, (different ways), rejects all the acoustic instrumentation of before, going for electronic chimes and wistful ambient vibrations. There’s not a care in the world here. Any feeling of tension or unresolved genre-fusion has gone, as the music’s too far above the worries of the rest of the world to really give a damn. It seems hopeful that the protagonist might have found peace by this point.
Ishibashi’s soundtrack for this movie does a three-hour contemplation of death and betrayal a fair hearing. The sounds are wistful and patient, leaning into the ear with magic timbres that seem to float in mid-air. It’s an endearing testimony to how relevant orchestral forces can be in modern film music, at least when put in the right hands. She retains the ability to tell a story through music alone – something which all the best in the genre should share in common.