The musical hint comes at the very beginning of “Bullet Train,” out now, when a new version of the Bee Gees’ disco classic “Stayin’ Alive” is sung in Japanese — because an American assassin codenamed Ladybug (Brad Pitt) is about to spend for the next two hours trying to do just that, fighting half a dozen other assassins on a bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto.
A top-notch film like “Bullet Train” demanded a top-notch score, decided composer Dominic Lewis (“The King’s Man”) and spent more than a year not only writing the entire score but also producing (and in several cases co-writing) the songs. which are heard during David Leach’s action thriller.
Leitch’s previous films (“Atomic Blonde,” “Deadpool 2”) were full of songs, Lewis knew (“he’s a man who drops a needle”), so his concept became: “Can I write something like a needle-drop , it looks like a song, but it does the job of punctuation, following the highs and lows of what’s going on?”
While Lewis trained in classical music at London’s Royal Academy of Music, he also spent time in rock bands before embarking on a career in film music. “I became a mad scientist,” he says, noting that the “Bullet Train” assignment began during the COVID lockdown, so he plays guitars, bass, keyboards and sings throughout the music.
“It’s very raw and deliberately messy,” admits Lewis. “It’s all vibration and no technique.” That’s pretty much what rock and roll is. It’s about attitude, and that’s what I really wanted to convey.”
There are strange wordless vocals throughout, and according to Lewis, “the main solo voice is an enka singer,” a form of traditional Japanese singing. “He’s so unique in his style, the vibrato is so emotional.” It is the only emphasis on traditional Japanese music; does not use Japanese instruments.
He devised a series of songs as background material for several of the film’s main characters. “Le Despedida,” sung in Spanish by 22-time Latin Grammy winner Alejandro Sanz, was written for Vuko (played by Bad Bunny). “My Time to Shine”, performed by UPSAHL, started out as a theme for Prince (Joey King).
“Kill Me Pretty” is Lewis’ “destiny” theme “done in a 70’s rock atmosphere” sung by Japanese singer Tamio Okuda, while two more famous songs, recently produced by Lewis – “Stayin’ Alive” and the century-old “I’ m Forever Blowing Bubbles” – sung by Japanese singer Avu-chan and 86-year-old 60s singer Engelbert Humperdinck, respectively.
Humperdinck, perhaps the most unusual choice of all, was recruited because Lewis noticed a West Ham United football club sticker on the back of Tangerine’s (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) mobile phone, and the composer remembered that the team’s theme song was “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles”. “, written in 1918 and a hit in British music halls during the 1920s.
“Let’s do an arrangement with a ’60s, Vegas, go-go vibe,” was Lewis’s thought and, as it happens, Humperdinck lives in Los Angeles. They recorded at the legendary Capitol Studios, again part of Lewis’ plan to create a sound that spanned popular music genres from the 60s and 70s to the synths of the 80s and the grunge rock of the 90s.
Lewis even got to write a children’s TV theme for the character Momomon in costume on the train. Finally, as the reason for the chaos in the cars becomes clear and the train spirals out of control, “I needed a huge orchestra to bring it all home.” A 70-piece orchestra recorded for two days in Sony to reduce the score.
For another twist, “we put pretty much everything, including the strings, through the tape machine. We’d add wow and flutter, make things bend and just make it sound like an old sample.”
Leitch encouraged experimentation, Lewis says: “David said, ‘You can do whatever you want and if it’s too much, I’ll pull you back.’ Just swing for the fence, be brave and have fun.’ And that’s what it was.”