Mica Levi of Micachu & the Shapes is only on her second movie soundtrack, but is already one of the most innovative composers working in film right now. Claire Lobenfeld asks the multi-instrumentalist about the Natalie Portman-starring historical film Jackie and how to write a soundtrack about real-life trauma.

How exactly do you soundtrack someone’s grief? Mica Levi, the musician and composer who leads Micachu & the Shapes, has first-hand experience. Tapped to score Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín’s new Jacqueline Kennedy biopic, Jackie, Levi took an obscure route and didn’t just explore the surface of sadness. Combining her recurrent interest in warped compositions, the score projects both the sweetness and composure of a First Lady struck by the tragedy of the assassination of her husband, President John F. Kennedy, and the grim reality of having witnessed your beloved being shot to death.

Jackie looks at the days after the Kennedy assassination — how the First Lady, played by Natalie Portman, kept her convictions in front of White House employees and how she worked with The Making of the President journalist Theodore H. White to write a profile of her husband for Time magazine which bolstered his reputation in the aftermath of his killing. What Levi has created for the film is a testament to her ability to find inspiration in uncommon places.

“She’s got the trauma of all the lives she’s lost while she has to face all of the world”

“She’s kind of high all the time in the film,” Levi says over espresso in the Viceroy L’Ermitage Hotel in Beverly Hills. “She’s got the seriousness and the trauma of all the lives that she’s lost — her kids, as well — and all of this is being brought up while she has to face all of the world. But she’s also smashing back the drinks, smashing back the pills, because she’s trying to keep level somehow.” Levi was able to give life to that contrast by using the same glissandos she employed in the score for 2013’s Scarlett Johansson-starring Under the Skin, the same sonic fascination that led the Shapes to produce Chopped & Screwed in 2011.

“I’ve just always been interested in those glisses,” Levi says of the warped sound that permeates the score. “It’s something that happens if you slow [your playing] down, you get this glooping and distortion and morphing of [sound]. It’s something I really like the sound of, but it can be quite expressive as well.” A glissando, or a glide, also gives the score an extra frill – the glissing transitions each composition between blissfulness and grimness throughout the film.

mica-levi-by-leah-walker
Photograph by Leah Walker

But it also creates a sound palette for Jackie that is both reminiscent of the 1960 and reflective of music right now. “Back in the day, especially around this time when Jackie was about, a lot of music was quite soupy and there was a way of being indulgent and soupy by having a glissando. There’s something quite rich about it,” Levi says. Time also played into her instrument selection. “The selection is kind of like a jazz band might have been at that time, although no saxophone or trumpet,” she adds, noting that using both would not have been very “quaint”.

There is certainly nothing quaint about Jackie O., or Portman’s performance of her, but it isn’t maudlin or prissy, either. “She was quite sassy underneath it all,” Levi says. “I thought of cats when I read the first bit of the script. She’s talking to the journalist [Theodore H. White] and she’s smoking a lot of cigarettes and she’s saying to his face, “Well, I don’t [smoke cigarettes]” and she also says some quite dry, emotionless stuff. In my mind she was wearing leopard print.” Of course, Jackie O. was the stereotypical picture of affluent New England – conservatively dressed, apathetic and all about the business at hand.

Levi could only use her imagination about the look of the film because she didn’t actually get to see it while she was composing the score. “[The director] hadn’t started cutting the film yet, so I sent him music that I thought might be Jackie Kennedy’s vibe,” she says. “Obviously, she existed so I knew something [about her]. I just wrote some music that I thought she’d be into or would be appropriate. Then he and his editor Sebastian kind of used that to help cut the film – it worked kind of backward to how I’d worked before.” Working with director Jonathan Glazer on Under the Skin, Levi had found herself scoring a movie that was edited almost to completion, she says.

Asked if she’s up for scoring another film, she says exasperatedly: “I have no idea.” Considering she landed Jackie because Larraín fell in love with her work after seeing Under the Skin at the Venice Film Festival (he and Yellow Magic Orchestra’s Ryuichi Sakamoto raved about it together on a festival panel) it seems likely she’ll be asked to do another film very soon. But there’s no doubt that if she does, it’ll be a totally new experience. “Depending on the project, it could be totally different. A lot of films I like don’t have any music or use pre-existing music – I don’t know, basically. Nobody knows.”

Stream the Jackie soundtrack here

Read next: How to compose an award-winning Hollywood soundtrack

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