When I ask Zach Robinson and Leo Birenberg what happens when they tell friends about the music they’re making, and what it’s for, I can practically hear the smiles creasing their faces.
“Oh, yeah,” Birenberg says, “people lose their shit.”
The two composers are behind the soundtrack for Cobra Kai, the YouTube Red series premiering today, that goes back to the San Fernando Valley, back to The Karate Kid’s Death Star of a dojo, back, 34 years later, with the original actors William Zabka and Ralph Macchio resuming their rivalry.
It’s my please-be-good-please-be-good show for 2018. In 1984, I was among the thousands of tweenagers who enrolled in a martial arts class after The Karate Kid landed as the feel-good hit in a milestone year for movies. The film delivered the late Pat Morita an Oscar nomination for his role as Mr. Miyagi, and the rest of us got a slew of indelible pop culture moments: the crane technique, the sweeping of legs, the waxing on and the waxing off.
“My friends get progressively more excited,” Birenberg said. “This was just a really tasteful world to revisit, and it’s something a lot of people are hyped to see.”
Cobra Kai, from what I have seen in the trailers, will honor the films’ legacy but turn the tables on its familiar faces. Johnny Lawrence, the blond, seething antagonist of the first movie, is now the main character. He’s your typical washed-up high school star now in middle age, clinging to old glories no one remembers. Daniel LaRusso is a successful car dealership owner, apparently trading on his earlier fame, too — and in one clip, is even shown as a kind of jerky overdog.
Cobra Kai is billed as a comedy-drama, which may give some fans pause, but remember there was lot of comedy in the original movies. In any case, it’s thrilling to see Zabka bouncing on his feet with the same bring-it-on glare he had as the Cobras’ teenage executive officer. Zabka, now 52, honestly does not look like he’s lost a step. And now he gets a face turn, reopening the dojo to misfits and picked-ons and giving them that Cobra Kai killer instinct, which concerns Daniel.
“We don’t want to say too much, or put an adjective into someone’s head going into the show,” said Robinson. “I will say it has a lot of heart and there are tons of comedic moments, but there are also self-reflective moments and a lot of deep scenes.”
That all needs music to match the moment. Moreover, Birenberg and Robinson felt a duty to support a feeling of continuity, as if this world has never gone away and 34 years have passed in real time for its characters. The Karate Kid hit its high notes with, well, high notes, like the flute when Daniel is training at the beach, and the unforgettable “You’re The Best Around” by Joe Esposito. Cobra Kai is clocking in at more than twice as long — 10 half-hour episodes, so there is more musical space to explore.
Birenberg and Robinson used a 70-piece orchestra, which was more typical of the original film’s score, composed by Bill Conti. They also brought in period-accurate synthesizers and electric guitars to complete the feel. Conti also used traditional Japanese instruments, but Birenberg and Robinson give them a lot more play this go around. “We really tried to expand it to more Japanese instruments, and especially percussion, like the taiko drums,” Birenberg said, which featured more in The Karate Kid Part 2. “We tried to really think about that whole taiko aspect. We went to Japan and bought a drum there that I really like.”
Johnny will be introduced with hair metal themes, big, chorus-effect guitars and stadium-reverberating drum kicks. The guy is still driving what appears to be a 1984 Pontiac Firebird, after all. Even so, Robinson and Birenberg were careful not to make it a parody.
“We both are not afraid of cheese,” Robinson says of himself and Birenberg. “We had a ton of discussions with the creators [Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg and Josh Heald] and they are not afraid of cheese, either, but they were clear we have to deploy it in the right way at the right time. But in the end, we know, OK, this is a place where can go all out and embrace the aesthetic.”
In another example, the adult Daniel, himself still seeking the balance that Miyagi said was most important, visits his teacher’s grave. You don’t mess around with this kind of a thing. “That’s one of those high-pressure situations,” Birenberg said. “When you take a look at the scene, one of the first things you think about is, ‘If I watch this as a Karate Kid fan, what do I want out of it?’ It’s super important to not lose sight of it. The memories and feelings [Daniel] harbors, in approaching a scene like that, it’s important to give those concepts a home and wed that into a unified idea.”
“It’s one of those scenes, where, you’re looking down at the keyboard,” Robinson said, “and then you look up and you feel like, ‘Wow, I am really scoring The Karate Kid.’”
Here are a couple of samples they shared that go to both ends of that spectrum. The out-there “Cobra Guy” captures “how Johnny hears himself,” as Robinson put it. And “The Wrong Path” is a lot more thoughtful and dramatic.
The soundtrack, from Madison Gate Records, will be available beginning Friday, May 4, from digital providers iTunes, Spotify and most others. An expanded physical CD release will be available May 22 from La-La Land Records.
It spans almost 40 tracks, and the composers don’t want fans to forget there are all-new, major characters coming to the show, too. They needed music that was evocative in its own right and not necessarily dwelling on nostalgia. Robinson mentioned a track called “Slither” as one that most represents the new era Cobra Kai is establishing within the canon. “Since the new Cobra Kai are students of Johnny, [their music] is imbued with a 1980s aesthetic, but we updated it, of course,” Robinson said. “It’s this amalgamation of their teachings.”
At bottom, the two say, the relationships that made the franchise so endearing get the show’s centerpiece treatment, as opposed to rock-em-sock-em fight action (though there is plenty of that). “You see the damage between Johnny and Kreese, and the emotional issues of having a sensei like that,” Robinson said.
Wait a minute, I say. John Kreese was the impeccably coiffed psychopath who ordered the Cobra Kai to do pushups on their knuckles and execute illegal strikes. Martin Kove and only Martin Kove could play that guy, and I haven’t seen his name mentioned yet. Is he in the show?
Birenberg gave me only a coy, noncommittal reply that I should tune in. Oh yeah, I lost my shit, too.