Everything that’s said about The Knick is sounds like an overstatement. People love it or hate it. It’s the best thing on television or the whole premium-cable anti-hero thing gone one step too far.
Me? I’m a believer. Sure, there’s some less-than-genius writing, but, in nearly all other facets, The Knick is the most masterfully constructed show on television right now. Not the best, but the best made. Directed, shot and edited by Steven Soderbergh (too many credits to mention), The Knick transcends most other television aesthetically. Every second looks beautiful. And sounds even better.
Soderbergh went to great lengths to replicate certain details of the early 1900’s New York. I wasn’t there but it feels like he’s done a pretty good job. One of the details he wasn’t vibing with was the music. He told Rolling Stone that most of the music his characters would have listened to at that time was “boring”, so while he was shooting he would listen to frequent Soderbergh collaborator Cliff Martinez’s Spring Breakers soundtrack.
Martinez, who played in the Weirdos, with Lydia Lunch, Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers (with whom he was recently inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame), has scored some of the best original movie soundtracks of the last decade, including Drive, Spring Breakers and Solaris.
In The Knick, he utilised the haunting synths he has become known for. The dark tones perfectly match the death-is-always-around-the-corner feel of 1900 New York. Rather than taking you out of the character’s timezone, it’s not as if they’re soundtracked by our music, but that we’re able to make the music they should have soundtracked their lives. Shit was pretty bleak back then. And Soderbergh utilises this to full effect, often drowning out the realism of traditional sound design in favour of the dominating soundtrack (which must relieve his budget somewhat too).
Scene One, Episode One is near perfect soundtracking:
New York City, 1900: We open on a POV shot of a man’s feet with unlaced boots. He’s asleep in a basement opium den/brothel. He’s woken, leaves the brothel and gets in a horse drawn cab, giving the driver instructions to take an inefficient route.
Two lines of dark synths start weaving around one another. The higher plays a broken melody, the lower pulses and bends. The man takes of his boot, takes out a syringe and loads it with a clear liquid (which we later learn is cocaine). The low synth escalates quickly into a high pitch as the man readies his syringe.
He lifts his right foot to his left knee and injects the cocaine in between his two biggest toes. A single synth starts trotting like the horse pulling the carriage. The carriage reaches its destination and the man gets out, and enters a building.
Title card: THE KNICK.
The synth keeps trotting. We see another man, bald with a long white beard, dressed in a shirt and bow-tie, with a full apron on. He looks like a occult priest on a theatre stage. The synth decays as he dips his beard in a bowl of steaming water to sterilize it. He’s a surgeon. This is an operating theatre. This is the Knickerbocker Hospital. The Knick.
People will die soon. There will be blood. A lot of blood. And cocaine. And synths. A lot of synths.