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‘The Young Pope’ Has the Best Music Cue Since ‘The Right Stuff’

A little-known techno jam makes a weird show sublime

(HBO/Ringer illustration)
(HBO/Ringer illustration)

Done well, music is as much a part of a film as the staging or dialogue. What would Chariots of Fire be without Vangelis’s theme, or Friday Night Lights without Explosions in the Sky’s doleful post-rock?

At its most focused, a music cue becomes a part of a character’s clothing. Bill Conti, the master of film scores, used two variations on a theme — an aspirational ode for when the hero goes to perform the task, and an anthem after he’s completed it. Conti pulled off this trick beautifully both in Rocky (“Gonna Fly Now”/“Going the Distance”) and The Right Stuff (“Breaking the Sound Barrier”/“Yeager’s Triumph”). You know Rocky because of Conti’s score, just as you know Darth Vader because of John Williams’s “Imperial March.”

Music has been part and parcel of the Catholic Church since before the Church as such even existed, and The Young Pope is no exception. At the heart of Paolo Sorrentino’s beautiful, unsettling, hilarious, surrealist television masterpiece beats a theme song, a throbbing techno heart: “Levo” by German techno artist Recondite.

Recondite, born Lorenz Brummer, has released four LPs since 2012, but is far from a household name. (Catch him at Opium Club in Vilnius this week!) “Melancholic doesn’t necessarily mean dark. Music can be happy and moody,” Recondite explained in advance of his last EP, which is a handy explanation as to why “Levo” is so essential to the aesthetic fabric of The Young Pope. Sorrentino sprinkles a diverse musical garnish on The Young Pope — a little Arvo Part here, a little LMFAO there — but he folds “Levo” into Lenny Belardo’s character the way Prokofiev folded the French horn into the Wolf’s.

When Lenny announces that he wants to change the public face of the papacy, stunning Cardinal Voiello and intriguing Cécile de France’s Sofia, “Levo” builds with the intensity of his monologue.

In this scene, Lenny announces that he wants to be a spectral figure, and as he describes his intention to fade into the background, up comes “Levo” like the shadow itself. Because the contours of the song are so subtle — it has no lyrics; it swells, but not much; it builds to a climax, but you have to listen for it — you’re left with three chords and the thump-thump-thump-thump of the bass drum. It’s both propulsive and comforting, rocking you to sleep like an airplane engine on an overnight flight. It is, like the Young Pope himself, a blank canvas.

That’s why Sorrentino’s heavy use of “Levo” is so inspired. The most natural use for the song comes in Episode 3, when Lenny sees Esther standing in St. Peter’s Square and asks to meet her for the first time. In this scene, as two attractive strangers stare at each other through the darkness, then come face to face in a large, empty, ornate room, “Levo” evinces wonder. As they speak to each other in abstractions over the chill electronic three-chord progression, a conversation Lenny ends by fainting suddenly, The Young Pope is at its most arty. Its most European, even. But “Levo” is so much more.

“Levo” is both the “He’s gonna do the thing” song and the “He did the thing” song. It portends a significant event to come in Episode 8, as seven topless women appear in the garden to spell out “BASTARD” on their bare chests, like if the student section at an SEC football game went to film school. But it also signifies action.

No scene benefits more from “Levo” than the face-off between the Pope and the Italian prime minister in Episode 6. It starts as a meeting between two heads of state, two powerful, arrogant men behind closed doors, each probing the other with the veiled language of statecraft to see just how powerful and arrogant the other is. The first half of the scene could’ve been out of an episode of a much more expensive remake of Madam Secretary, or a better-lit Game of Thrones. But just as you think Lenny’s wildly overplaying his hand, “Levo” comes thumping in.

By this point, you’ve watched enough of The Young Pope to know that this simple, quiet song is the Catholic “Imperial March,” the non-diegetic xenomorph from Alien. And before you know it, you’re going “ooooo-whooo-whaaaam” and “thump-thump-thump-thump” right along with the background music, rooting for a fundamentalist weirdo theocrat as he delivers an unhinged supervillain monologue about how he’s going to grind a secular democratic reformer into dust.

Lenny’s monologue is 35 different shades of absurd, not least because of its length: The scene between Lenny and the prime minister is 13 and a half minutes long. Lenny talks over “Levo” for four minutes and 43 seconds — the full length of the song. His monologue continues for another minute after that. The Young Pope runs out the shot clock on his own theme song. Yet it all flies by, and this patent nonsense feels profound, because “Levo” is going thump-thump-thump-thump in the background. I don’t remember the last television scene that was changed so fundamentally by the music playing behind it.

“Levo” in The Young Pope is an all-time great music cue. It is majestic, charming, mysterious, and above all else, a canvas on which to project whatever feelings you bring into it with you. Unlike most other great music cues, “Levo” doesn’t tell you what’s coming, exactly — only that it’s going to be important, and it’s going to be awesome. If Lenny Belardo is God, then “Levo” is his Holy Spirit.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.