Thursday, July 8, 2021

The beat goes on: No Sudden Move

Belfast-born David Holmes initially seemed an unlikely candidate for film scoring, having focused his early career on DJing and solo albums devoted to electronica, trip hop, big beat and good ol’ fashioned rock ’n’ roll. That said, his overall music knowledge — and personal collection — have long been impressively extensive, and his career trajectory changed completely when he was hired by director Steven Soderbergh to score 1998’s erotic neo-noirOut of Sight. It proved an artistic match made in heaven, leading to many more collaborations over the years: most notably (for our purposes) all three Ocean’sheist dramedies. Their newest team-up is the just-released No Sudden Move.

Fans of slow-burn crime thrillers will love it.


Scripter Ed Solomon’s noir-ish saga is given precisely the right look and atmosphere by Soderbergh and production designer Hannah Beachler. The post-WWII Detroit setting emphasizes the deplorable racial divide between cozy white neighborhoods and decaying inner-city Black districts, and the wary mistrust this prompts from both sides. But Solomon hasn’t merely written a mordant, attitude-laden crime drama; many of his plot elements — and twists — are drawn from actual historical events.


Down-on-their-luck criminals Curt Goynes (Don Cheadle) and Ronald Russo (Benicio Del Toro) are hired by a shady go-between (Brendan Fraser) for a “babysitting” job. (That’s “babysitting,” as in “guard at gunpoint while something goes down elsewhere.”) Their task: to watch the family of low-level General Motors executive Matt Wertz (David Harbour), while he’s escorted to his office by third gunsel Charley Barnes (Kieran Culkin), in order to retrieve a certain document from a certain safe. Curt, Ronald and Charley will remain masked the entire time; if everybody cooperates, everybody lives.


Everybody cooperates, but the plan still goes awry. In the aftermath, Curt and Ronald are on the run, having done the one thing both hoped to avoid, by antagonizing rival crime lords Aldrick Watkins (Bill Duke) and Frank Capelli (Ray Liotta). Unless the besieged duo can find and leverage the aforementioned document — a true Hitchcockian MacGuffin, until it suddenly isn’t — their hours are grimly numbered.

Holmes’ working relationship with Soderbergh is quite unusual, if not unique. The composer always delves deeply into a script’s period, setting and atmosphere, in order to “feel” the story, and the characters within it. Holmes then assembles a massive assortment of era-specific songs, cues, riffs and so forth.


“I sent him so much music from the era,” Holmes explained, “different moods, instrumentals, songs and soundtracks that had a certain feel.”1


Soderbergh became quite enchanted by one cue: Henry Mancini’s unsettling title theme to 1962’s Experiment in Terror. This became the acorn from which the mighty oak of Holmes’ score developed.


“It was a beautiful place to start,” Holmes continued, “to explore a broader meaning, so I studied the instrumentation of it. I could hear the cimbalom, the guitar, drums and upright bass. It had a certain feeling that was exciting.”2


Holmes ultimately “borrowed” more than the mood of that particular theme; portions of his finished score also echo Mancini’s title themes for 1958’s Touch of Evil and 1963’s Charade.


As also is his habit, Holmes wrote most of the score cues without having seen any filmed footage, relying instead on instinct and extensive conversations with Soderbergh. The composer also adhered to the era rigorously, insisting that every microphone, amp and instrument was from its time, and true to the period. (“It felt like method scoring,” he laughed, admitting that he even worse 1950s outfits during the process.3) Once the score was completed, he gave Soderbergh five versions of each cue, so the director could place, edit and develop the music to precisely enhance his vision of the film.


Holmes settled on an octet configuration: Keefus Ciancia (keyboards, cimbalom and horn arrangements); Woody Jackson (dulcimer, autoharp, guitars and bass VI); Robert Hurst and David Piltch (acoustic bass); Gabe Noel (cello and bass); Jay Bellerose (drums and percussion); and Davey Chedwidden and Alfredo Cortiz (additional percussion). The resulting score features numerous lean, smoky jazz cues, definitely period-authentic, that deftly enhance on-screen events while adding to the overall atmosphere of uneasy tension and a hair-trigger potential for sudden bursts of violence.


The film opens as Curt, recently released from prison, walks along a quiet Detroit street and slowly approaches the camera. Soderbergh intercuts B&W photos of mid-1950s inner-city Black families, as Holmes’ brooding, percussive-heavy title theme introduces its slow 3-3-3 motif, against solemn guitar comping and a cha-cha beat. Twitchy, punchy atmospheric cues later add menace to the home invasion, as the three masked intruders terrify Matt, his wife and their two children; we wonder, as Charley and Matt head for the latter’s office, if the GM exec will survive the trip. Throbbing, heartbeat drums follow Matt when he enters the building and heads upstairs; this cue sounds almost light-hearted, in counterpoint to the gravity of his situation. The music regains its intensity moments later, when the plan goes awry back at the Wertz home; Curt and Ronald flee in Matt’s car, barely evading some of Capelli’s men, against a saucy little swinger highlighted by sleek walking bass and a percussive vamp, similar to what Mancini used for his title theme to Charade.


A slow, mournful lament follows Curt when he visits his old neighborhood in order to retrieve an item stashed with his sister and her husband, before he was incarcerated. Meanwhile, in the suburbs, an eerie, “whistling” cue, backed by cimbalom, signals the arrival of State Police Detective Joe Finnery (Jon Hamm), whose shrewd gaze — the music implies — misses nothing.

The echo of Charade’s percussive vamp, double-time drums and cool walking bass follow Curt and Ronald, while they drive Matt to a quiet neighborhood in Northern Ohio, in order to menace the latter’s boss into surrendering the document that wasn’t where it was supposed to be. The music remains thoughtful, tense and atmospheric as matters become increasingly complicated; the cimbalom gets plenty of use. A bit later, pensive bass riffs back the feckless Matt — a complete imbecile throughout this entire story — when his mistress (Frankie Shaw), thoroughly disgusted, abruptly dumps him.


Tempo and intensity pick up while Curt and Ronald climb the food chain, in an effort to learn the reason behind the entire caper; a rolling drum vamp anticipates what might be their final meeting … and, indeed, it Explains All. But this success proves pyrrhic: Although Curt and Ronald appear to depart as winners, a strong echo of Mancini’s bongo-fueled Touch of Evil title theme rises in the score, suggesting pending double-crosses. They occur quickly, backed by another round of agitated, cimbalom and bass-fueled atmospheric cues. The final ironic twist signals a reprise of the title theme: One of the key players is allowed to stroll, satisfied, into the sunset … while pretty much everybody else is left dead or broken, thanks to the jaw-dropping conspiracy that has just been revealed.

The end credits unspool — quite appropriately — against Bobby Mitchell’s “Well, I Done Got Over It.” Additional source tunes, heard from various radios, include Duke Ellington’s “Blue Pepper (Far East of the Blues),” Doris Day and the Harry James Orchestra’s “Lullaby of Broadway,” the Oscar Peterson Trio’s “Have You Met Miss Jones?” and — this last one also placed for maximum irony — Dean Martin’s “I’ll Cry Like a Baby.”

Holmes’ score was released digitally, but not physically. The 24 tracks — mostly in film sequence — are easily placed, thanks to dialogue-lifted titles such as “This Thing’s Bigger Than Frank,” “Depends What You Think It Is” and “Capelli Wants You Dead, Watkins Wants You Alive.”




1. David Holmes, quoted in the No Sudden Move press/production notes, Page 15.

2. Ibid, 16.

3. Ibid, 16. 

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