Looking back at the past is a popular past time of the present. When the world goes to shit, it’s comforting to wipe away your fears of the unknown (future) with familiar faces, traditions and memories that take us back to happier times when good guy’s beat bad guy’s with a swift crane kick to the face.
Such is the case with Cobra Kai. The breakout streaming hit of 2018 has given YouTube TV its first big hit, while gifting fans of the original Karate Kid story the sequel that we never properly got — and the world needed some more William Zabka (Johnny).
Cobra Kai’s 10-episode first season succeeds by breaking ground on new characters and continuing old storylines, while also paying homage to its beloved past. A big part of the show’s mood and tone comes from its rad score by composers Leo Birenberg and Zach Robinson, who use face-melting guitars, a 70-piece orchestra, and Asian flutes to make old, new again. I spoke with the composers over email.
MANDATORY: There’s a thin line between being “inspired by” and “recreating.” How did you approach the task of creating a new/old sound for such a classic movie that’s beloved by fans?
Leo Birenberg and Zach Robinson: We tried to break down what worked about the scores to the original movies, and what we concluded was that people really connected with the color palette more than any specific musical phrase or idea. Not just with the score: there are a wealth of styles and genres that are integral to the Karate Kid sound that are found in the songs in the film’s soundtrack. We identified which colors we wanted in our toolbox that would share the same cinematic universe but also give us room to grow and develop new ideas: orchestra, Japanese traditional, 80s hair metal, gritty rock, synth wave. There was a lot of inspiration there and a lot of opportunities to cross-pollinate styles to tell the story.
The Stranger Things soundtrack ushered in the return of that synth horror/sci fi sound that you now hear in a lot of contemporary projects. Do you think your Cobra Kai soundtrack could do the same for this arena rock/guitar god rock sound?
It’s possible but it’s still so project specific. It’s hard to imagine the arena rock sound making its way into more scores whereas the Stranger Things synth aesthetics are pretty malleable in a way. You can score horror and anything with a retro-feel in the style of the ST score, but with the right director and vision, that type of score could also work for more of a drama or a contained story. The hair metal sound was just so perfect for Johnny, it was such a no brainer. It’d be cool to see how other people would explore that genre in score form though for sure.
Why do you think audiences are responding to shows like Cobra Kai, Stranger Things, etc?
These shows balance the idea of nostalgia really well. Nostalgia films and TV get a bad rap, but we personally don’t see the issue with embracing familiarity. Obviously there’s an appetite for revisiting old stories and you can blame the studios all you want but people are watching this stuff. What we think is unique about Cobra Kai is how it leans into the sentimentality of nostalgia while being really conscious to not weigh down the new developed material. Cobra Kai owes a lot of its success to reaching the nostalgia viewer and reconnecting with them their old pals Daniel and Johnny, but more importantly opening up the doors to a whole new generation of people who didn’t grow up with the Karate Kid.
Any childhood memories from watching the original Karate Kid?
Zach Robinson: I remember the tropes more than the actual movie. I definitely knew about the crane kick silhouette over the sunset and “wax on, wax off” before I had seen the film because I probably saw references in Saturday morning cartoons or something. It’s pretty amazing how pervasive Karate Kid references are even still in our culture. I just saw Deadpool 2 last week and there was a “sweep the leg” joke!
Leo Birenberg: I probably watched the first one dozens of times, but I couldn’t for the life of me pinpoint when. It’s one of those ubiquitous movies that you just come into contact with, whether at sleepovers, after school, with your parents– it’s everywhere!
In your working relationship, who is Johnny and who is Daniel?
Zach Robinson: Wow that’s actually a pretty deep question. I think we both have a little Cobra Kai and a little Miyagi-do inside us. Which is maybe why we work together so well? It’s all about “balance,” as Daniel-san says.
Leo Birenberg: The real question is: “Which one of us is Kreese?”
Cobra Kai: The Karate Kid Saga Continues (La La Land Records) is now available to stream on Apple Music, Amazon Music, Spotify. A digital version is available now from Madison Gate Records. La-La Land Records will also release an LP edition later in 2018.