A Maccabee at the movies: five film scores that inspire Felix White

The guitarist turned composer is back with his second documentary score, this time about tennis legend John McEnroe

“At the end of The Maccabees, I was completely bereft,” Felix White tells NME. “I had a moment where I thought, I’m just going to say yes to stuff and see where I land. I was concerned that I was never going to recover from that feeling of living out my dreams and being in a band.”

In the five years since the indie heroes’ breakup, White has indeed said yes to a lot of stuff: he’s started a record label, become a successful sports broadcaster and launched a career in making movie music. Ahead of the release of McEnroe, the new doc about America’s brattiest tennis star, White takes us through five film scores that inspire his work on the new soundtrack.

‘McEnroe’ arrives in cinemas on July 15. CREDIT: Paola Franqui

Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in Heat


“While I was making this score, I was going back into a lot of films and going to the cinema,” White says. “For the first time, I was analytically doing the maths of: ‘what is the music telling me here?’

“Al Pacino and Robert De Niro’s characters don’t see each other across the whole [of Michael Mann’s Heat] apart from one scene. They don’t want to beat each other because it’s feeding their purpose and self-identity. We really liked that in relation to [tennis rivals Bjorn] Borg and McEnroe. It’s that Joker thing of, ‘I don’t want to kill you, you complete me!’”

Tangerine Dream’s synth-y sounds from Thief

“It’s way before Drive, but Drive-sounding music,” White explains of the legendary German band’s score for Michael Mann’s other crime epic Thief. “It’s got loads of guitar solos on top of modulating synths – human vs. machine. We liked the idea that John’s brain is genius on the court, but there’s that extreme human fallibility too. The music did that as well, with all the computerised sounds but with Guitar Hero-like stuff on top.”

The emotional rhythms of Éric Serra’s Léon score

During lockdown, White went back to some tried and tested favourites – inspecting them with his soundtrack hat on. Thanks to quarantine, he had plenty of time to do so…


“I was trying to make music with momentum and rhythm without using a full drum kit,” he says, “and the first thing that appealed to me when I went back and watched Léon was the Indian drum-type percussion underneath crazy string sections.

“There’s tragedy and sadness built into all of the music, so it’s a tough one to watch on your own – you get very sad very quickly!”

The bombast of Bruce Lee’s The Big Boss

“I’ve actually never even seen this film, but I’ve been making a record for the last few years and I’ve been getting in the car with Jamie [a drummer friend White has been working with] to go to and from studios. He has a rule that he won’t listen to music with lyrics in the car.

“We were listening to [The Big Boss] in the car, and it’s so bombastic, wild electric guitars, mad brass sections and flutes. It’s a lot of fun and really out there. We were talking about all the darkness on McEnroe, but if you pay a tenner to go and see a film, you want it to be a bit of a romp and good fun as well.”

The impeccable sound design on Jonny Greenwood’s There Will Be Blood

Another film Felix went back to while crafting the McEnroe soundtrack was There Will Be Blood and its impeccable score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood. In particular, he was drawn to the film’s exquisite sound design and how it worked in tandem with the score.

“There’s a moment when the kid’s ear drum bursts when an oil drum explodes and there’s this horrific, dissonant thing that happens. Even now when I’m explaining it to you, I can feel how uncomfortable it was. It gave me a little lightbulb moment, and I thought: when you’re doing a film score, you’ve got the license to do that. You can go as far as you need to.”

The influence of this score then manifested strongly in the McEnroe soundtrack. “When Borg retires, McEnroe is experiencing a disconnection and his life becomes claustrophobic, filled with paparazzi. I started to feel like I could put that sense of the world closing in on him across in a much more visceral way. That’s what great music and film does.”

‘McEnroe’ is in UK & Irish cinemas from July 15

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