11 May 2024

Review: Challengers (Original Score) by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross

From The Sampler, 2:30 pm on 11 May 2024
Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor

Photo: Bandcamp

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Plenty of innovative work is being done in film scores these days. People poke fun at the sonic overload of Hans Zimmer, but he and his team created brand new instruments to soundtrack the Dune movies, and the results sound far more exciting to me than, say, another John Williams soundalike. 

The partnership of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross may have seemed an unlikely fit for Hollywood, but they’ve won two Oscars for their work, on 2010’s The Social Network, and 2020’s Soul. Their scores still sound like no one else, despite prompting a horde of imitators. 

The latest from the pair soundtracks Zendaya’s sexually-charged tennis movie Challengers, and ramps up the adrenalin to fit.

Pundits have remarked how different this is to Reznor’s often moody, sometimes excoriating work as Nine Inch Nails, the one man industrial behemoth he launched in the late ‘80s. But the techno-heavy sounds here are reasonably familiar ground, they’re just not as steeped in distortion. 

Having said that, touches like the disco strings on the title cut are new. 

The idea to soundtrack a sports/ relationship drama with a dance music pulse came from director Luca Guadagnino, who wanted to make it, in his words, “fun”. It’s a masterful directorial decision. 

Watching Challengers, it feels like the movie is in love with this music. It will suddenly, abruptly start playing during dialogue scenes, sometimes almost drowning out the actors. In turn, the songs here are interrupted by various noises - an alarm, or the thwack of a tennis ball.

It sparked almost as much chatter on social media as the film itself, and cleverly comes with a mix from DJ Boys Noize that seamlessly blends each track into one long dancefloor set.

In a recent GQ profile, Atticus Ross remarked on how funny Luda Guadagnino’s notes on each song were, Reznor responding with the quote “unending homoerotic desire”, elaborating, “it was all a variation on those three words.”

That certainly makes sense once you’ve seen the film, but the insistent rhythms work so well when paired with tennis matches, and the kinetic way Guadagnino films them, it’s impossible to not get excited.