A 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) will spend the next two hours trying to do just that, battling half a dozen other assassins on a bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto.
An over-the-top film like “Bullet Train” calls for superb music, decided composer Dominic Lewis (“The King’s Man”), and spent more than a year not only writing all the music, but also producing (and in several cases co-writing) the songs heard in David Leitch’s action thriller.
Leitch’s previous films (“Atomic Blonde,” “Deadpool 2”) were full of songs, Lewis knew (“he’s a needle man”), so his concept became: “Can I write something in the style of a needle-drop , it feels like a song, but does it do the job 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 embarking on a career in film scores. “I became a mad scientist,” he says, noting that the “Bullet Train” assignment began during the COVID lockdown, so he played guitars, bass, keyboards and sang throughout the score.
“It’s very raw and deliberately messy,” admits Lewis. “It’s all mood and no technique. That’s a lot of what rock and roll is. It’s about attitude and I really wanted to convey that.”
There are odd silent vocals throughout, and according to Lewis, “the main solo 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 only nod to traditional Japanese music; he does not use Japanese tools.
He came up with a series of songs as background material for several of the film’s lead 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 a theme for Prince (Joey King).
“Kill Me Pretty” is Lewis’ “fated” theme “done in a ’70s rock vibe” and sung by Japanese singer Tamio Okuda, while the two more familiar tunes recently produced by Lewis – “Stayin’ Alive” and the age-old ” I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles’ – sung respectively by Japanese singer Avu-chan and 86-year-old 1960s singer Engelbert Humperdinck.
Humperdinck, perhaps the most unorthodox choice of all, was appointed because Lewis had noticed a West Ham United football club sticker on the back of the Mandarin’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 became a hit in British music halls in the 1920s.
“Let’s do an arrangement with a ’60s, Vegas, go-go vibe,” was Louis’ thought, and, as it happened, Humperdinck lived 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 through the synths of the 80s and the grunge rock of the 90s.
Lewis even had to write the theme for the children’s synthesizer TV show for the character Momomon in a suit on the train. Finally, when the cause of the car-to-car chaos becomes clear and the train spins out of control, “I needed a huge orchestra to bring it home.” A 70-piece orchestra recorded two days at Sony to complete the score.
For a further twist, “we run almost everything, including the strings, through tape. We’d add wah and wobble, 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 fences, be brave and have fun. And that was it.”