When Mica Levi released her 2009 album Jewellery, recorded with her band The Shapes, it was clear the Surrey-born violinist was a rising art-pop savant. Her choppy, squirrelly compositions were catchy but unnerving — pop songs, but thoroughly gnashed. A few years later, Levi made her initial mark in film by tracking the movements of a tortured alien for the score of Jonathan Glazer’s captivating 2013 film Under the Skin.
Her latest scoring project, though, couldn’t feel more human. For Pablo Larraín’s biopic Jackie, in which Natalie Portman plays Jacqueline Kennedy in the days after her husband’s assassination, Levi has composed a score that manages to capture both the paradigm shift and horror of that moment in history, as well as the fragile ways in which Portman’s Jackie moves within it.
Throughout Jackie, Levi uses stirring string arrangements in similar but more subtle ways than she did on Under the Skin. On “Car,” which soundtracks the dizzying scenes in which the presidential motorcade speeds ahead with a dead JFK at Jackie’s side, and on “Burial,” Levi lets her creaky strings quiver in a rapid tremolo, rendering both songs as steadily growing vibrations. The latter track rises and falls as if animated by the same blustery wind that continually plasters Jackie’s black veil to her face during the funeral. Levi’s compositions often work on more than one level, opening up her already vast potential for film composition.
An iconic first lady famous for her fashion sense, poise, and dedication to art and design, Jackie Kennedy in the popular imagination is knowable yet hard to define. The delicacy of her image might have lent itself to a more traditional score, or music that reflected that era in American music — perhaps something like Carter Burwell’s quaint, piano-driven score for Carol, or a soundtrack of 1960s hits to complement Jackie’s use of the title song from Camelot.
Instead, Levi constructs a far more complicated sound for the inherent tensions of the film. Ominous strings make up the score’s base, which often competes with woodwinds that flit like a ghost of the first lady’s more elegant, composed state. During a scene in which Jackie must celebrate her son’s third birthday just three days after her husband’s assassination, a candlelit birthday cake arrives on-screen heralded by a few whimsical notes of flute in the song “Children.” On another, “Vanity,” the sound of a flute skips across waves of dismal strings. Through moments like these — little flickers of feminine sweetness that rise from the depths of the score’s darkness — Levi vividly represents Jackie’s struggle to maintain her poise amid her grief.
The first lady as portrayed by Portman is understandably obsessed with how the public is seeing her at that moment in time. She makes sure that her husband’s burial plot is proper, that the honest grief of their children is witnessed, and that JFK’s legacy is honored. And throughout the film, we see how she, too, wanted to be seen by the public, from her 1962 A Tour of the White House With Mrs. John F. Kennedy television special to an ongoing conversation in the film with a journalist in which she repeatedly goes on and off the record, smoking cigarettes that she insists the American people don’t know she smokes. Just as Jacqueline Kennedy struck a balance between the once ever-smiling, pink-suited first lady we knew and America’s widow, Mica Levi’s score finds resolution somewhere between darkness and light.