Below the Line: Scoring ‘Steve Jobs’


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Michael Fassbender in “Steve Jobs.” The score was composed by Daniel Pemberton.

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Universal Pictures

What should the soundtrack be to the life of a tech visionary? In the Danny Boyle film “Steve Jobs,” there is no simple answer. The film captures the life of the co-founder of Apple in an unusual way, focusing on three product launches during Mr. Jobs’s career, in 1984, 1989 and 1998. We stay behind the scenes at these launches, with the tensions and emotional beats of the movie played out in hallways and dressing rooms. And the score, by Daniel Pemberton, aims to capture Mr. Jobs’s mood as well as set up the stakes of his involvement with Apple and beyond.

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‘Jack It Up.’ From the ‘Steve Jobs’ Soundtrack

Mr. Pemberton, who also scored this year’s big-screen adaptation of the television series “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.,” joined “Steve Jobs” before shooting began and discussed with Mr. Boyle the idea of dividing the score into three styles to capture the film’s three-act structure. The first act would represent Mr. Jobs’s vision of the future. The second act (which takes place after Mr. Jobs has been removed from Apple and as he is trying to get his own computer company off the ground) would be tied to revenge à la Shakespearean tragedy. And the third act would represent wisdom as Mr. Jobs learns more about himself and understands the heights that computers could reach.

1984

For this section, Mr. Pemberton had the idea to compose the score using only equipment from 1984, “which was a nightmare,” he said in an interview. The year was seen as one of optimism at what technology could bring. “A computer at that time felt quite futuristic,” he said. “And it felt like the synthesizer was a very good way to capture that feeling.”

He used a collection of synthesizers from the period (like a Yamaha CS-80, which Vangelis used for the “Blade Runner” soundtrack) and had to write the score in a way that would incorporate their benefits and limitations. One of those limitations was that the equipment couldn’t save the settings for specific sounds. Mr. Pemberton had to photograph the settings so he would know how to reset them for the recording.

“The music of the first act is quite simple, but the sounds are hopefully evocative of the time,” he said. “You can replicate that now digitally, but there’s something about using the original equipment that has a different sound.”

Another synth, the Roland SH-1000, had an unstable sound quality that he appreciated. “If the heating’s on, it goes out of tune,” he said. “That’s what gives it this evocative feeling. We think technology is so binary, but it’s not. There are still these weird variables.”

1989

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‘The Circus of Machines I,’ From the ‘Steve Jobs’ Soundtrack

“In the beginning of the film, we used old technology,” Mr. Pemberton said, “and then in the second act we used the oldest computer of all time, the orchestra.”

He continued: “We had the notion of trying to write an opera for the second act. It felt like one of those ideas that was either going to be really brilliant or totally disastrous.”

He wrote several different pieces as options. “Some of them we found were too dramatic and would fight too much with the dialogue,” he said. They settled on a couple of pieces that had a great sense of momentum. It can be felt in “The Circus of Machines I,” with its strong but familiar classical feel. The music serves as a backdrop to Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue, which Mr. Pemberton sees as the libretto in a way.

“The most important thing in this film is the dialogue,” Mr. Pemberton said. “You have to give that respect and space. The first time I read the script, I remember thinking, this is amazing. But what am I gonna do? Where can I put any music?”

But Mr. Pemberton said scoring the film with an opera style turned out to be effective in changing the mood of the second act and allowing for a different perspective on Mr. Jobs’s personality.

“There’s a showmanship side of him which I think this score reflects pretty well.”

1998

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‘1998. The New Mac.’ From the ‘Steve Jobs’ Soundtrack

When the film reaches this year, the computer now does what it promised it would do in 1984, so Mr. Pemberton decided to do something he called “in the box,” which was trying to compose and construct as much of the score for this act in the computer.

“I wanted to embrace where technology was by this stage,” he said.

Mr. Pemberton saw the third act as more introspective. He composed pieces with more internal sound design using software and plug-in synthesizers. A digitally peppy sound comes through in “1998. The New Mac,” a piece that announces the changing times. But as the work progressed, Mr. Pemberton discussed with Mr. Boyle the idea of taking some bits of composition from the first act and enhancing them for the third. “The purity of the three-act structure got remixed a bit,” Mr. Pemberton said. “The most important thing for us was telling the story most effectively.”



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