Members of BadBadNotGood make their film debut with a 'creepy, aggressive' score

Disappearance at Clifton Hill is a new movie by Canadian director Albert Shin.

Disappearance at Clifton Hill is a new movie by Canadian director Albert Shin

Leland Whitty and Alex Sowinski of Toronto group BadBadNotGood have written their first film score for Albert Shin's new film, Disappearance at Clifton Hill. (Getty Images)

Toronto group BadBadNotGood has not released an album since 2016's IV, but its portfolio has continued to grow. In the interim years, the members collaborated with some pretty big names: Kaytranada, Kendrick Lamar, Daniel Caesar and Kali Uchis, to name a few. But just before they settle back into the studio for their followup, members Alex Sowinski and Leland Whitty have another project up their sleeves: crafting their very first film score.

Disappearance at Clifton Hill (out today) is a Canadian film by director Albert Shin that tells the story of a woman who is haunted by a kidnapping she believes she witnessed as a kid. Many years later, following her mother's death, she returns to her hometown in Niagara Falls and decides to look into this unsolved case. 

It's a film that relies heavily on tension and suspense, something that feels like the polar opposite of BadBadNotGood's loose, jazz-inspired compositions. Sowinski admits that this approach was "a pretty new kind of sound for us to work with because we've never really worked on something this creepy, aggressive and dark-sounding." 

The score, which Sowinski and Whitty will release as an album of its own, plays an immediate role. As the film opens on protagonist Abby's childhood memory of this traumatic event, an unshakeable sense of dread bellows underneath the experience with a saxophone and pounding drum beat. The saxophone, Whitty's main instrument, reappears throughout the film as a musical trigger that enhances the stress Abby feels as she finds herself falling deeper into the rabbit hole of this mystery. 

A natural, and perhaps easy, comparison that can be made is to saxophonist Colin Stetson's film work on Hereditary and Color Out of Space, which also uses arpeggios to burrow into the viewer's brain in unsettling ways. While Sowinski and Whitty admit that Stetson, a musician they've worked with in the past, was an influence on their own score, they also looked to the frenetic music of avant garde jazz artists Eric Dolphy and Sam Rivers for inspiration. 

The thematic nature of scores has left a lasting impression on Sowinski and Whitty, something that they will not only retain for future film projects, but that they may even try to transfer into new music they're currently writing for BadBadNotGood.   

"In the past, with a lot of our music, it was more individual song-based," Whitty explains. "But with this film, the whole thing is unified. It's been kind of cool, having gone through that, to try and think of ways to approach that in our music that isn't too obvious or on the nose, to make a bigger statement." 

BADBADNOTGOOD perform 'IV' for CBC Music's First Play Live. 8:41

With the music of Disappearance at Clifton Hill now safely out of their hands and into theatres across the country, Sowinski and Whitty find themselves, along with member Chester Hansen, in the "development stage" of piecing together a new record. Missing in the lineup will be original member Matt Tavares, who confirmed last October that he was permanently leaving the group. 

Since Tavares had already stopped touring with BadBadNotGood in 2016, after the release of IV, Sowinski says the group's dynamic was "changing quite a bit already" in the past few years.

"Nothing feels super drastic, it's been kind of a smooth transition and it's been a great space for the three of us to explore a different approach to making music," he adds. "Chester and Leland both play keyboards really well so it's been cool to see their sense of style and expression. We just want to keep moving forward in a way that feels truthful and that also allows us to push ourselves forward more rather than business as usual."  

For musicians who have already worked with some of hip hop and R&B's most talented artists, and that is now looking to add more directors to the list, Sowinski and Whitty are extremely content with the people they are able to call their friends. They're protective of the names left on their dream list of collaborators, but Sowinski will concede to one Canadian icon: "Céline Dion is definitely on the bucket list."


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