Sunday SoundCheck: Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross - Challengers

A good tennis volley has a rhythm. As the yellow felt bounces back and forth over the net, a beat forms. In the crowd, heads oscillate with each swing. There's grunting and sweat, drama and action, until the ball breaks free from the tension,  releasing an eruption of cheers and howls under the bright sun. That infectious passion of competition is on intense display in Luca Guadagnino 's new film, Challengers, about a tennis rivalry spiked with a love triangle.

The promotional poster for Challengers features a glamorous portrait of star Zendaya peaking above her lowered sunglasses, with the two men battling for her affection on the tennis court reflected in her lenses. The artwork recalls the iconic imagery of Tom Cruise sliding down his Wayfarers in the poster for Risky Business. The classic Cruise film, while best known for the budding star dancing around the living room in his underwear to Bob Seger's "Old Time Rock 'n Roll," features one of the best scores from the legendary electronic innovators Tangerine Dream. As today's soundtrack gurus, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross have produced one of their best scores with Challengers, turbocharging the reels of Guadagnino's spicy slant on a 30 for 30.

Echoes of the duo's work on The Social Network are evident in both Challengers the film and its soundtrack. Challengers floats between two eras, pre and post smartphone. The early aughts timeline recalls the halcyon days of Mark Zuckerberg launching Facebook on Harvard's campus and the grimmer compositions on Challengers like "L'oeuf" evoke that crimson vibe. But the Social Network soundtrack is moodier and more atmospheric, fitting closer to the dark landscapes present in the score to Guadagnino's previous film, the cannibal romance Bones and All, which was his first collaboration with Reznor and Ross. Challengers has the biggest of budget of any Guadagnino film to date, with Reznor and Ross rising to the occasion with smashing synthesizers transforming the tennis court to a dance floor.  

The tunes are nostalgic for the neon ragers of yesterday, the vibe is more Borg-McEnroe than Federer-Nadal. The pulsating "I Know" has the hallmarks of vintage New Order, especially the gorgeous synthesizers on "Your Silent Face," but throttled through the edgier grooves of Nine Inch Nails circa Pretty Hate Machine. The catchy Chicago house throwback, "The Signal," ups the BPMs as do the subterranean grooves of "Brutalizer." The album's standout, "Yeah x10," is pure techno disco bliss, a Moby meets Moroder jock jam. Although the mixed version of the score by Boys Noize adds some sheen, "Yeah x10" is already a rump shaker. 

"Challengers: Match Point," a reprise of the blistering opening title track, juices the film's climax, the riveting tiebreaker volley between best friends turned rivals Patrick Zweig and Art Donaldson. It's been years since they've talked, and now Zweig is a washed-up pro while Art's star is fading. Tashi (Zendaya), the tennis prodigy turned wife-coach to Art, watches from the crowd as the two face off, Zweig holding serve over Art's comeback tour. The palpable sexual tension among Zweig and Art, from sharing churros at the Stanford food court to their sauna showdown, is amplified by the suggestive rhythms of the music, with hints of '80's gay porno music and Patrick Cowley's erotic soundtrack work. Tashi has had them both but only one of them can have her. The film is a loop, cycling the trio's past and present, and the music follows suit, beats forming patterns for a perfect set.


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