Exclusive: Composers Leo Birenberg and Zach Robinson on Cobra Kai

Tai Freligh interviews the composers behind Cobra Kai on YouTube Red…

cobra kai

Composers Leo Birenberg and Zach Robinson utilized a 70-piece orchestra, as well as choruses of electric guitars and retro-synthesizers, to create a score for the Karate Kid follow up show on YouTube Red, Cobra Kai, that combines the motifs of the original with their own modern sensibilities.

Cobra Kai stars William Zabka and Ralph Macchio, who are reprising their roles from the films. The series takes place thirty-four years after the original film and follows the reopening of the Cobra Kai karate dojo by Johnny Lawrence and the rekindling of his old rivalry with Daniel LaRusso.

Flickering Myth’s Tai Freligh caught up with Leo and Zach to chat about the music of Cobra Kai.

What was your approach to updating the music for the show?

We created three unique score worlds thateach support the different storylines on the show. Johnny’s music is a representation of how he hears himself; he thinks he’s the ultimate badass, so we scored his scenes with face-melting guitar riffs and bruising arena drums. Daniel is supported by more orchestral, Japanese-influenced sounds and his tonal palette is our through line that connects viewers to the franchise’s earlier films and original composer Bill Conti’s legendary score. Finally, we scored scenes featuring the new Cobra Kai students with a blend of hard rock (inherited from Johnny), ’80s inspired synthwave, and modern EDM. Part of the fun of establishing these musical identities was our ability to mix and match them based on the interactions happening between the ever-twisting story arcs of the characters.

How is your soundtrack different from the original?

One of our first steps was to break-down the original score and find what was making it tick. What we concluded was that what audiences have been responding to was mostly the colors of the score. The palette of sweeping orchestra with Japanese instruments mixed with the soundtrack of 80s synth pop and rock songs is what makes Karate Kid sound like Karate Kid, more so than the specific notes and themes. So we used that palette as a launch point for finding our original material.

cobra kai

I understand you used parts of the original score as a musical motif. Can you elaborate on that?

Despite all that talk of palettes and colors, there were a few moments where we wanted to incorporate some actual material from Conti’s score. There’s a recurring figure string/harp line from the first film that we loved and was flexible enough that we found some fun ways to incorporate it into our score cues. There is also a lot of recognizable Okinawan flute in the original and in a few key moments where we quote the exact lines. It’s a bit like cooking with saffron or any strong spice… you just need a little pinch to impart the flavor. Too much and it will overwhelm the meal, but just a hint is perfect.

Did you consult with Bill Conti on the new music?

We did not; however, we found inspiration from his iconic original score and hope to continue the legacy that he created.

If so, what does he think of the score?

We hope he loves it!

In your opinion, what made his original score so great?

Like all great scores do, Conti’s music enhances and heightened the story being told on screen. He flawlessly switches between larger than-life orchestral moments, like “Daniel Sees the Bird,” and a beautiful, intimate musical palette for Miyagi and Daniel-son’s scenes. By listening to the score on its own, you really feel like you’re traveling alongside Daniel on his journey.

cobra kai

Given that The Karate Kid took place in the 80’s, its soundtrack reflects that time period. How do you reflect through music that the new show takes place 30 years later?

We knew from the start we had to honor the 1980’s musically. Conti’s score is legendary, but the songs from the Karate Kid soundtrack are almost just as important if not more recognizable, so we took musical inspiration from tracks like “You’re The Best” or “Young Hearts” and infused them into our score. There were a lot of discussions with the creators about which set pieces would benefit from being scored with a retro flavor. For example, we knew that we had to score Miguel’s training montage as it would have been scored back in 1984 because that’s one of the true hallmarks of not only the Karate Kid but of 1980s sports films in general. Of course the ‘80s montage can be seen as bit of a cliche, but this is COBRA KAI…there was no other way.

How is music used in the show and does it being on YouTube Red change anything?

Scoring for YouTube Red gave us more flexibility with how we could approach the score; they were very supportive of what we were trying to do. We tried to use music only when necessary because television can easily become over-scored. One of the benefits of writing for a serialized TV series is that you spend a lot of time with these characters, and you have plenty of opportunities to dive deep into themes. There are so many story arcs with twists and turns and changing of allegiances, and we wanted the music to help the guide the audience alongside different characters.

SPOILER ALERT: One of our favorite scenes in the series is the end of episode 10 after Miguel wins the tournament and accepts his trophy on behalf of Cobra Kai. There were multiple ways to score this scene, but we ultimately decided that scoring Johnny’s conflicting emotions rather than Miguel’s triumph was the right way to tell the story.

Upcoming projects?

ZR: I’m working on an indie feature this summer.

LB: I’m finishing up a feature called Plus One right now and am in the middle of two different animated shows. One of those is also martial arts related. ?

cobra kai

Speed Round:

How do you survive the zombie apocalypse?

ZR: I’ve seen enough Romero movies to always know where my local hardware stores and malls are located. ?

LB: You’ll be dead by the time you get there. I’ve already got emergency bags ready in my apartment, car, and studio!

Karate Kid or Kung Fu?


Favorite movie score?

ZROnce Upon a Time in the West

LBOut of Africa

If not composing music, what career would you have?

ZR: Zoo Keeper

LB: Chef

John Williams and Hans Zimmer in a cage match- who wins?

LB: John Williams just turned 86 and is somehow still writing Star Wars scores, so I’m pretty sure he’s unkillable. Hans was probably once a bear in the Octagon, but I think the amount of coffee he drinks might send him into shock once Williams gets him in the headlock. I think J-Wow takes this one.

ZR: What he said.

cobra kai

Photo Credits: Larry Mah, YouTube Red

You can find Leo and Zach on Twitter at @leobirenberg and @zachrobinson.

Cobra Kai premiered on Youtube Red on May 2, 2018 and can be found on Twitter.  The show has already been renewed with season 2 expected to drop in 2019.

Tai Freligh is a Los Angeles-based writer and can be found on Twitter.

(article originally appeared on Flickering Myth)

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