The Flight Attendant (Season 1)
Review originally published in January 2021 issue of Film Score Monthly
The Flight Attendant stars Kaley Cuoco as Cassie Bowden, a pleasure-seeking airline stewardess who must piece together the events of the previous night when she wakes up hungover next to the dead body of one of her passengers. Based on the eponymous novel by Chris Bohjalian, the series premiered this past November on HBO, with an original score by Blake Neely. The composer is known for scoring several DC comics shows such as Arrow, The Flash, and Supergirl, as well as for his work on The Mentalist series, with a number of additional credits besides.
The score for The Flight Attendant mixes neo-noir jazz elements with surreptitiously thriller-esque percussion, likely taking stylistic inspiration from John Williams’ Catch Me If You Can. (You know, that other story featuring a glamorous airline worker on the run). Only the music here is not concerned with developing the harmonic and melodic content so much as it is about playing with the diverse timbres available to it. This is a highly percussive approach where drums abound and melodic instruments are used in a percussive manner. Coy one moment and completely conspicuous the next, the music operates more broadly as the chaotic representation of Cassie’s mind, impeccably matched with Cuoco’s hot mess performance.
The music is led by piano and percussion, where the former is used in various capacities and the latter is divided among roughly a dozen or so instruments. The piano is jazzy, abstract, and dangerous, employing tight harmonies, syncopated rhythms, hammered keys, plucked strings, and further extended techniques besides. The percussion meanwhile includes bawdy timpani, bass drum, and concert toms exploding from the rear, mallet percussion (marimba, xylophone, vibraphone, and glockenspiel) with a deference toward the brighter of these sounds, slap and drumsticks, shakers and brushes, hi-hats, cymbals, triangle, cowbell, chimes, tambourine, and tubular bells. Combined, these instruments are often used in a deliberately frightening way as sudden, explosive attacks, crashing together like an angry monster out to get Cassie.
If the “Main Title” is any indication, Neely decided to get baked on mushrooms indigenous to a bayou before compiling his ensemble, integrating plenty of atypical instruments on the way. These include didgeridoo, talking drums, bongos, and body percussion (snapping and breathing), with some light electronics and sound effects adding to the inharmonic nature of the score. There are also electric and bass guitars engaged in limp-wristed fingerstyle plucking, upright bass, and the occasional scratching violin for its more jazz-influenced parts. Contrary to this, during the rare moments of reflection where Cassie isn’t drunk or having a panic attack, soft textures of a more reminiscent nature can be heard. Pensive, gentle, and smooth, these textures are usually synthesizer-based mixes joined by pedal tones and sparkling percussion floating above (“Look for Your Nearest Exit”).
Neely’s score is a wonderful example of the freedom composers can achieve when they place themselves strictly within the confines of the world they are scoring. The entire score is like a time bomb waiting to explode. It is rich with unique, unpredictable sounds that, beyond causing a crisis of identity among certain orchestra members, captures perfectly the murder mystery flare of the show. It is worth noting that the track titles offer an extra dose of amusement as they take you through a standard list of airline passenger procedures. A second season of The Flight Attendant has been confirmed and hopefully Neely will return with it to further develop the terrific ideas he has started here.