[Note: This review discusses some critical plot points in Stranger Things]
How do you soundtrack another dimension?
This was the task put forth to Survive‘s Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, composers of the score to Netflix’s summer smash series Stranger Things. In the show, Department of Energy officials with nefarious intentions use a girl with special powers to create a gateway to the “Upside Down” — a world that exists simultaneously with our own but is cloaked in dark, and cold, and monsters. Figuring out how to musically represent this space, to convey its nature in an authentic but not overpowering way, is one of the duo’s greatest accomplishments in a score that’s filled with indelible moments.
To explain the “Upside Down” would be to presume I fully understand it (I don’t) and to take away from the magic of its reveal across Stranger Things’ eight-episode first season. What can be said is that within it are the landmarks of Hawkins, Indiana, but not as we remember them. Everything is empty and uncomfortably still. When Eleven (the girl who escapes her Dept. of Energy captures to become one of the most badass TV characters since Walter White reminded us that he is the one who knocks) traverses the “Upside Down,” the viewer may see familiar things, but that only makes them stranger. Dixon and Stein channel this sensation into their score in magical and impressive ways.
On the track “I Know What I Saw”, which accompanies Joyce (mother of the missing boy at the series’ center) telling Sheriff Hopper that despite sounding crazy, she knows her boy is communicating with her, Dixon and Stein take sounds that could almost be described as ethereal and filter them through their own “Upside Down,” creating something that recalls the holy but is in fact downright spooky. Again on “Gearing Up” we hear what could otherwise be classified as montage music, the track carrying the momentum of on-screen action but underpinning it with a forceful sense of dread.
Stranger Things is a show that invites you to read into it, to draw conclusions that may be intentional or may simply be the by-product of talented filmmakers creating a sustained and compelling world. Dixon and Stein have crafted a score that offers the same level of enigma, mixing themes and recalling notes to tell the story through your ears while you watch it unfold on screen.
On the other end of the spectrum are the sweeter moments that temporarily blossom amidst the danger and decay. The track “First Kiss” is perhaps the single stretch of score most reminiscent of a thousand 1980s teen films, a tender bit of respite and a reflection of budding love. By channeling the traditional in this one moment, Dixon and Stein bring the comfort of familiarity to a scene that is meant to anchor us, however briefly, to something with which we can all relate.
Again on “Still Pretty” we have something quiet and moving to mirror a scene in which Eleven, now without the somewhat comically unconvincing wig she’s worn to blend in when out in public, asks Mike if she is “still pretty” without it. The moment is touching, and the score embraces the subtlety by itself being little more than a melodious single synth progression. Dixon and Stein seem keenly aware that a bombastic score only works if it knows when to shut up too — it’s why the soft chorus voices announcing Gandalf’s return at the apex of the Battle of Helm’s Deep is so much more potent than any full-throated orchestra could ever be.
As fans await word on the somewhat inevitable announcement that Stranger Things will return for a second season, the release of not one but two volumes of the series’ score is a gift to keep us tied to the world of Hawkins, and the one that lays beyond it. We will never get to watch that first season with virginal eyes again, but Dixon and Stein’s music is a chance to revisit it, to envelop ourselves in its arms (or claws), and to bask in the glory of something supremely strange and wonderful.
Essential Tracks: “Still Pretty”, “I Know What I Saw”, and “Gearing Up”