Words by:
Photography: Sarah Makharine

Aftersun is in cinemas now and streaming exclusively on MUBI. Watch it with a free 30-day trial via mubi.com/crack_aftersun.

Aftersun opens with the sound of a camcorder shifting into life. From that moment, the film plunges us into what feels like a lived-in memory, replete with all of the dreamlike ways our minds filter and access the past. “I’ve turned 11 and you are one hundred and thirty turning one hundred and thirty one in two days,” runs a young girl – Sophie’s – voice in that opening camcorder clip. Without understanding where we are or who is speaking, we are instantly connected to the characters through sound, a theme that continues throughout.

The film tells the story of Sophie, played by Frankie Corio – or Soph, as her young dad Calum, played by Paul Mescal, calls her. Sophie has (famously!) “turned 11” in the film’s opening timeline, in which she is on holiday with Calum in Turkey in the late 1990s. But we also meet her later, as an adult (played by Celia Rowlson-Hall), immersed in reflection, perhaps grief – though it’s never explicitly stated – spending time with her memories of Calum. It’s this future/present day Sophie from whose vantage point everything is experienced; the innocent, somewhat unstable joy of her childhood undercut by something more ominous threatening to crest the horizon just out of shot. The title Aftersun hints that these retrospective reflections are at the heart of the film, explaining its wistful, ruminative tone. It’s a reflective tone which finds fullest expression in the score, a masterful collection of dreamlike ambient compositions from Oliver Coates, and the deft work of music supervisor Lucy Bright, who collaborated with debut director Charlotte Wells to mark the film with an unmistakable sense of time and place even as it drifts subtly into the surreal.


“[Director] Charlie [Wells] had been living with the script for so long that she had strong [musical] ideas already, really good ones [when I first came on board the project], which is such a gift for a music supervisor,” says Lucy Bright. “It was all about putting the film in a very specific time and place but allowing for this sort of floating, dreamy feel, something slightly mis-remembered.” Throughout, we are immersed in the textures of the early digital era: a world of 24-hour clocks, telephone boxes, arcade games flashing “Insert coin”, BEKO colour TVs, travel agents’ catalogues, cassette Walkmans, Polaroid cameras, and the sound of landline telephones gently slotting back into their holders at the conclusion of a call. It’s a treasure trove of nostalgia that finds expression in the tunes which populate the world of the characters, whether that’s Road Rage by Catatonia echoing around the resort arcade, or Tubthumping by Chumbawamba soundtracking teens guzzling booze in the poolside bar.

“I love that you can see different influences on Sophie’s taste,” says Bright, whose own memories of childhood holidays are soundtracked by Paul Simon’s Graceland. “You’ve got the pure pop of Steps that she’s listening to on her headphones but you also have REM’s Losing My Religion that she probably learnt from her dad. In that way I had similar taste when I was that age because I was a sponge to what was on the radio (George Michael, Bananarama, Milli Vanilli, Soul II Soul), what my parents listened to (Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, Mahalia Jackson) and what my sisters (who are 10 and 11 years older than me) had in their record collections (Bauhaus, Roxy Music, The Associates, Fun Boy Three, Desmond Dekker, Jimmy Cliff. Really eclectic).”

Coates too feels connected to the period the film is set in because of formative indie musical experiences of his own through bands like Marion, Blur, Geneva, and Puressence. But his focus was pulled away from the period. “In some ways the score has an opposing function to the diegetic music in the film,” he says. “The songs lean more into the naturalism of the family holiday, which is at times awkward and boring. To me they feel like a document of the time and place. The score gradually moves toward the suspension of disbelief, to allow the fiction to take over and the presence of absence, to be with the quality of light and shapes in the images, and a sense of the film almost becoming self-aware. We talked [about] how the music could stand for memory on one hand and the ocean on the other.” Throughout, Coates’ compositions are mixed with environmental sounds of planes landing, a baby crying, or ocean waves crashing into the Turkish coastline.

The tracks which feature in Aftersun are not always there solely to anchor the scene in a time or place. Two of the most striking moments are when anthems – namely Blur’s Tender and David Bowie and Freddie Mercury’s Under Pressure – have their tempos slowed and vocals isolated, smudging the border between the soundtrack’s tunes and the ambient space of the score. It creates an anxious, panicked tone that’s one of the most memorable elements of the film, but at times the ability to include these moments hung in the balance.

Relying on such iconic tunes comes with its fair share of jeopardy: at any moment a licensing snag could pull the rug from beneath the edit. “It would have been awful, wouldn’t it, [to lose a song like Tender from the film]?” says Bright, whose job it was to ensure – as far as possible – disaster didn’t strike. “[With] Tender… I dated [Blur guitarist and second vocalist] Graham Coxon many years ago, actually about the time Tender came out, he’s such a sweet, brilliant person. When it was taking some time to hear back on approval I emailed him, but actually the approval came in before I had to ask him for a favour! It’s nice to have that song in there, sort of a nostalgic Easter egg for me.”

Similar hazards lurked when working to include Under Pressure, particularly when you factor in the film’s inimitable, trippy twist on it. “I am so grateful to the artists and estates who all came on board with the vision and for the amazing sync teams (two publishers and three master owners) who helped guide everything through,” Bright says. ”I have no idea what we would have done if it hadn’t, but it makes me happy that so many people have loved this scene and song.”

Remixing it, she says, “was Charlie’s idea… She and [editor] Blair [McClendon] had been playing with this in the edit. It was obvious that it worked, even in quite a rough way, but [changing the song] also adds an extra layer of complexity to the clearance process. The key was to get them sounding as brilliant as possible before they were sent to the rights owners for approval.” Luckily, the team were able to build the warping of the original tracks into unique pieces of music that were so compelling it would be a crime not to have approved them. “Olly created that incredible cue which weaves in and out of Under Pressure and matches it so well and brilliant Chris Elms, who works with Björk, mixed it to perfection.”

For most of the score, Coates relied on a mixture of cello, synth and complex sound design. Initially he was working with old and warm synths as his palette, but he came to workshop most ideas on the cello, which he says “is always a natural medium for me to improvise and speculate ideas in.”

“It’s my workstation in a way, even for non-expressive sound, or electronic hums, working like an anchor or a glue. If I use a contact mic it is essentially a saw wave with no acoustic resonance which I then filter or process. I try not to pre-determine what is going to happen, so the string parts for Tai Chi and Boat and One Without came unexpectedly, away from the film.”

This intuitive process thrived in the context of Coates’ musical chemistry with director Charlotte Wells. “This relationship with Charlie [Wells] and Olly [Coates] was just a joy to be part of,” says Bright. “To see how their conversations developed and the music was created – such magic. After their very first conversation Olly wrote a piece of music that captured the essence so perfectly that it’s actually in the film. I can tell you that this does not happen often!”

Their shared vision was also evident in Wells’ and Coates’ love of early electronic music pioneer Éliane Radigue, whose work Wells was using as placeholder music to give a sense of the vibe before Coates had produced the score: an early but significant sign of mutual taste. “I often think Éliane Radigue is the greatest living composer, and one of the most significant composers ever,” Coates says. “It’s about being present with the phenomenology of the sound, as the filter lifts and it’s possible to stop thinking. I was very happy there were passages of Radigue in the temp [score] (in mono). At the start of lockdown I used to listen to Radigue synth works for a long time in the dark to address the growing panic of a diary emptied of live music.”

Radigue was not the only key influence on Coates. “I was also listening to Tetsu Inoue at the time who is a very different kind of shimmering ambient electronic composer,” he says. “I thought about his light and radiant textures on one hand, and the dark halls of deep sound on the Radigue side.”

Bright – whose career has spanned from the classical world to working at indie stalwarts Mute Records – was also able to draw on influences that spoke to the film’s ethereal, spacious essence. “When I worked with Steve Reich, Philip Glass and [sitar player] Gaurav Mazumdar at Warner Classics, they and their music taught me so much about time and space in sound, I think about that a lot,” she says. “When I was at Mute I worked with Simon Fisher Turner and that introduced me to the films of Derek Jarman and the scores Simon created for them which opened up my understanding of what a soundtrack could be and do.”

Most of these influences resonate somehow with Aftersun, perhaps mostly through their ability to elucidate space, silences, gaps in music, or simply to tease out the poetic potential in a film’s soundtrack. While this is a film with a masterful score and soundtrack, it’s also a mindful film, paying as much attention to pauses and gaps as it does to sound. Musicality exists throughout Aftersun – even in the characters’ rhythmic breathing – not only in the music itself, and it’s a film about absence as much as presence. This, perhaps, is Coates’ and Bright’s greatest contribution to it: music that bleeds effortlessly into silence.

The Aftersun OST is released on 13 January via Invada and Lakeshore Records.

Aftersun is in cinemas now and streaming exclusively on MUBI. Watch it with a free 30-day trial via mubi.com/crack_aftersun.