Good Vibrations: Pop Polymath Julia Holter on Scoring ‘Bleed For This’

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Late last year, Open Road Films announced Bleed For This, a film depicting the tragic fall and triumphant comeback of world boxing champion Vinny Pazienza, starring Miles Teller and directed by Ben Younger (Boiler Room, Prime).  The film tells the true story of Italian-American lightweight and junior middleweight champ Vinny Paz, or “The Pazmanian Devil,” whose career nearly ended when his neck was fractured in a catastrophic car accident, which took place just weeks after winning his second world title in 1991. Despite incredibly painful and cumbersome medical procedures, Paz continued to train after the injury in hopes of returning to the ring. Against all odds—and the recommendations of his doctors—Paz successfully recovered and resumed his career, finding success as a minor belt-holder and world-title challenger. His life’s story reads like a Hollywood script, but director Younger had more subtle artistic goals in mind when he took on the project.

In spite of its heroic plot, Bleed For This is built to transcend the clichés of a typical sports film. Half of the story is, in fact, one of illness and recovery. Paz’s primary opponent isn’t a skilled world champion or an invincible Russian Adonis, but rather the excruciating pain and boredom of methodical recovery and the angst of losing the ability to pursue a life’s passion. He is, undoubtedly, the hero of this film, and though fist-pumping triumphs and swelling emotions are part of it, there is a delicacy and thoughtfulness at work that is not typical of the genre. That’s where Julia Holter comes in.

Julia Holter, 'Bleed for This' composer | Photo: Tonje Thilesen
Julia Holter | Photo: Tonje Thilesen

The Experimental Pop Musician

Holter, a Los Angeles-based experimental pop musician who in recent years has gained critical acclaim and a devoted following with her eclectic synthesis of brooding melodic composition, avant-garde production techniques, and richly detailed storytelling, was an unexpected choice to score Bleed for This. In fact, the call from Younger to work on the film came as a complete—but very welcome—surprise to the composer.

“I really was so happy that they contacted me. I really wanted to do this,” Holter said. “I love working with moving image and I love the sound of films and the way music interacts with the sound of the film itself. Ben [Younger] was stubbornly interested in having a person who didn’t make film scores do it. It was sort of me and a bunch of other people that were more experienced. It definitely wasn’t because I was qualified.”

Younger’s interest in choosing an untraditional composer stemmed from his desire to push the boundaries of a typical sports film narrative, starting with the deconstruction of the sweeping, epic scores that often characterize the genre.

Miles Teller in Bleed for This | Photo: Seacia Pavao
Miles Teller in Bleed for This | Photo: Seacia Pavao

“He didn’t want it to sound like a film score. There’s definitely a type of sound of film scores and he wanted something that felt natural. It’s pretty atmospheric,” Holter explained. “It’s not in-your-face. There are themes, but they’re not bombastic. It’s not like a brand film score.”

In Holter’s work, she displays an instinctive tendency to layer, prune, and reconstruct arrangements in unexpected ways. There is a cinematic quality to her music, particularly on display in her latest full-length, “Have You in My Wilderness,” which brims with epic orchestral swells and subtly-varied vocal inflections, allowing her character studies to come to life in ways that feel multi-dimensional and vibrant. Yet in spite of her penchant for experimentation and complexity, the music in Bleed For This is decidedly more minimal—making use of strings, saxophone, and piano—and the process of scoring the film was surprisingly clear and easy for the composer.

“I wasn’t trying to be different. I was just being myself,” she said. “Because of my lack of experience in film scoring, I have a different perspective. It all came kind of surprisingly naturally to me.”

“I was surprised it was that easy. [Ben] was always pretty clear… It ended up being this somewhat organic process. There were moments where I was actually with Ben at the piano with the film playing, trying different things and he would tell me what he liked.”

Julia Holter, 'Bleed for This' composer | Photo: Tonje Thilesen
Julia Holter | Photo: Tonje Thilesen

Holter’s own compositions, however, do not comprise the complete soundtrack to the film. Pop music from the era—that is, the very early 1990s—as well as music from American blues musician Willis Earl Beale is sprinkled throughout the film, including its arresting trailer. But Holter thinks the varied musical selections only help the continuum of the film’s dark, gauzy tone.

“Willis Earl Beale’s music runs through the film. It’s raw and blues, but also sort of ethereal. It helps set the tone for this film,” she said. “Having this sort of rawness kept me understanding where I should go, which is to have something atmospheric but simple and minimal…and kind of bluesy.”

Another’s vision

Relinquishing control isn’t always the easiest thing to do for an artist, especially one used to constructing such distinct narratives of her own. But this time out, Holter gracefully ceded conceptual control in the project, finding the scoring process therapeutic.

“I really liked it,” she said. “I really liked following someone else’s vision and not having to make those choices. It is sometimes liberating in a way, because then I can focus on a certain aspect of the music making. I expected it to be terrifying. It’s a big film actually, and I am not a film scorer. So I was scared that I wouldn’t be professional enough. I was pretty hesitant and scared but excited.”

Still, it’s more than the score of the film that gives Bleed For This the potential to transcend the boxing genre. It’s something inherent in the Vinny Pazienza narrative; “The Pazmanian Devil” was not another boxer made by the sport and undone by the sport, and thus the story of Vinny Paz is one that cannot be told without a whole lot of stillness, meditation, and pensiveness.

“I don’t really respond well in general to a lot of action. In terms of my attention span, I can’t focus on action films very much. It’s kind of a sensory overload for me,” said Holter. “I like to get into deeper aspects of a film, that are slower and quieter because I can focus.”

miles-teller-vinny-pazienza-bleed-for-this

A Poetic Sport

Looking back on the rage and obsession depicted in Scorsese’s Raging Bull and the sweet, objectively depressive elements of the first Rocky (that is, before the latter became the star-spangled franchise that allowed James Brown to perform “Living in America” in a revealing geometric suit-jacket alongside a glitter-adorned Apollo Creed), it’s clear that boxing has tended to lay the foundation for sports films with quieter, meditative moments. Holter, admittedly, is not a particularly avid boxing follower nor a sports film fan, but she can understand why the sport is unique.

“It’s a destructive sport. It’s about destroying each other,” she states simply. “It makes sense to me that it would be a dark, more poetic sport.”

Indeed, there is something poetic within the ropes of a boxing ring, a singular fight that is at once spectacular and completely relatable. Perhaps two bodies sparring in space is just an illuminated, theatrical performance of human nature—all of us fighting our own special opponent, whatever that may be. Yet in the case of Bleed For This, out of this destructive force came an outpouring of collaboration and creative energy, allowing an experimental pop musician to work with an established Hollywood director to create something entirely their own. To destroy, to create, and to destroy again: perhaps that’s what art and boxing have in common.

Bleed For This, starring Miles Teller and Aaron Eckhart, is now in theaters.

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