A musical hint at the 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 called Ladybug (Brad Pitt) goes to spend the next two hours trying to do just that, fighting off half a dozen other killers on a high-speed train from Tokyo to Kyoto.
An over-the-top film like “Bullet Train” demanded an over-the-top 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 many cases co-writing) the songs heard throughout the David Leitch thriller.
Leitch’s previous films (“Atomic Blonde,” “Deadpool 2”) have been littered with songs, Lewis knew (“he’s a needle-drop guy”), so here’s his concept: “I can write something in needle-drop style, that feels like a song but does the work of scoring, following the highs and lows of what’s going on?”
While Lewis trained in classical music at the Royal Academy of Music in London, he also spent time in rock bands before launching 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 entire score.
“It’s very raw and deliberately messy,” admits Lewis. “It’s all mood and no technique. That’s a lot of what rock ‘n’ roll is about. It’s about attitude, and I really wanted to convey that.”
There are strange wordless voices throughout, and according to Lewis, “the lead single voice is an enka singer,” a form of traditional Japanese singing. “It’s so unique in its style, the vibrato is so emotional.” This is the score’s sole aim for traditional Japanese music; it does not use any Japanese instruments.
He composed a series of songs as basic 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 the Wolf (played in the film by Bad Bunny). “My Time to Shine,” performed by UPSAHL, began as Prince’s (Joey King) theme.
“Kill Me Pretty” is Lewis’ “destiny” theme “made in a 70s rock vibe” and sung by Japanese singer Tamio Okuda, while the two more familiar tunes, newly 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 crooner Engelbert Humperdinck, respectively.
Humperdinck, perhaps the most offbeat choice of all, was recruited because Lewis had seen 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 “Rwy’ n Forever Blowing Bubbles,” written in 1918 and popular in British music halls during the 1920s.
“Let’s do an arrangement with a 60’s vibe, Vegas, go-go,” thought Lewis 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 80s synths and 90s grunge rock.
Composer Dominic Lewis experimented with music to create car-to-car chaos for “Bullet Train”
Lewis even had to write the cheesy synth kiddie show TV theme for the character Momomon in costume on the train. Finally, as the reason for the chaos between cars became clear and the train careened out of control, “I needed a huge orchestra to bring it all home.” A 70-piece orchestra recorded over two days at Sony to cap the score.
For a further twist, “we put almost everything, including the strings, through a tape machine. We’d add wow and flutter, get things bent, and make it sound like an old sample.”