A member of Radiohead and Paul Thomas Anderson’s go-to composer, Jonny Greenwood has long been a musical magician, but his film work in 2017 was a high-water mark even by his own lofty standards. Not only did he craft the two best movie scores of the year, for Anderson’s Phantom Thread (out now in the UK) and Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here (releasing on March 9), he also made sure that the sound of each was distinctive. The films use music in markedly different ways, and Greenwood manages to find two unique sounds that suited these stories perfectly.
Phantom Thread takes Greenwood out of his established cinematic comfort zone, away from the dread-inducing drones and rumbles that characterise a lot of his work and into a sparkling world of romantic flourishes, albeit retaining his trademark disconcerting edge. In a film that teeters on the line between reality and something a bit stranger, thriving on unpredictability, a score that forces feelings upon its audience would be counter-intuitive. Instead, Greenwood lets his music dance alongside Anderson’s characters as they shift and contort through the story. Familiar refrains strike unforeseen chords of menace in new contexts; thrilling ambiguity is the order of the day.
Ambiguity is hardly the aim in You Were Never Really Here, however, with its music pulling on one particular emotion: clawing, exhausting panic. In one interview for Phantom Thread, Greenwood stated that the film’s classical romantic stylings allowed him to be more sincere, but there’s hardly an argument to be made that YWNRH’s score ever borders on anything other than utterly serious. It’s a punishing listen, as if Greenwood has managed to capture the exact feeling of being murdered and then, even more impossibly, actually transposed that sensation into sheet music, a macabre triumph that even the most disconcerting horror movie scores cannot come close to.
YWNRH’s score works in tandem with vicious sound design, where the hostile shrieks of the city and thudding hits of Joe’s (Joaquin Phoenix) hammer against skulls blend with the music to craft a dissonant, actively aggressive soundscape. It’s a perfect complement to the brutal content of the film, which never seeks to give its audience comfort or catharsis. Brief moments of silence come as welcome respite, but they are always tinged with the lingering knowledge that the assault is bound to resume, and you’re never sure that you’re prepared for its return.
Phantom Thread’s sound is less unified with its score than YWNRH’s, the beautiful music often sitting haughtily above proceedings, making the moments of more seamless integration that much more powerful. In what might be the film’s most astonishing sequence, Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) seeks out his lover Alma (Vicky Krieps) at a New Year’s Eve party she has rebelliously attended. It’s a scene overflowing with indelible visuals and crescendos of excited noise as the party reaches its climax, but for the couple’s bitter reunion, Anderson cuts the sound to make room for the music. We instantly feel more intimately connected to Reynolds and Alma.
Greenwood mixes his score with well-known classical pieces from Debussy, Schubert, and more, which has the dual effect of having the classy, yet stuffy, air of high society culture permeating every second of the film, and also showing off just how good a composer Greenwood is. This is the first time that he’s attempted a score like this, and that his work can stand shoulder to shoulder with these old masters is a staggering achievement that remains hugely impressive throughout.
The soundtrack cues in YWNRH are cut from an entirely different cloth, the violence and misery of the score occasionally punctuated by a gentle pop ballad. That in itself is hardly something new, with Scorsese, Tarantino, and their countless sub-par imitators always taking great joy in setting murder and mayhem to upbeat tracks, but when mixed with Greenwood’s work, these songs take on a different power. Their use is haunting, not winking, again falling back on the total sincerity that characterises the brilliance of both films and their music.
Like the stars of the films in Day-Lewis and Phoenix, Greenwood needs superb directors who can corral his work into one exceptional part of a whole instead of letting it take over the entire film. In Anderson and Ramsay he has perfect collaborators, cementing himself in 2017 as one of the best film composers on the planet. Apart from the tragically departed Jóhann Jóhannsson, with Sicario and Arrival, no one else in recent years has managed to write two scores so different, yet so equally masterful, in such a short space of time – evidence of a truly special talent that we are lucky to bear witness to.