Jonny Greenwood has developed into one of the most fascinating, multi-layered musicians alive today. From his work with the British rock band Radiohead to his compositions for film, orchestra, and chamber ensembles, Greenwood’s explorations are dense and intriguing, full of extended techniques, haunting melodies, and a striking blend of software and analogue instruments.
As a teenager, Greenwood was already a versatile musician, playing guitar, viola, recorder, and keyboards. At that time, he was developing a taste for twentieth-century classical composers like Krzysztof Penderecki and Olivier Messiaen, both of which continue to inform his compositional styles. Just as he was beginning university music studies in 1991, Radiohead’s career as a band began to take off.
Consequently, Greenwood ended his university studies and focused his energy on composing and performing with Radiohead as lead guitarist and keyboardist. A massive run of albums that arguably re-defined rock music during the late 90’s and early 2000’s followed: Ok Computer, Kid A, The Bends, and more. All that time, Greenwood adapted his compositional and orchestrational interests into that setting, creating some of the most interesting musical moments of the last three decades.
In 2003, Jonny Greenwood revealed his first film score – Simon Pummell’s Bodysong. Since then, his achievements in film music and score have added up to include an extensive collaboration with director Paul Thomas Anderson on films such as The Phantom Thread, The Master, and There Will Be Blood, with director Pablo Larraín on Spencer, and with director Jane Campion on Power of the Dog. Greenwood has also created numerous award winning works for orchestra and chamber ensembles.
Let’s dive into a handful of Greenwood’s most memorable cues and film scores from his mesmerising body of work.
THE PHANTOM THREAD
Set in 1950’s London, The Phantom Thread was Jonny Greenwood’s fourth collaboration with director Paul Thomas Anderson. The film portrays the life of a neurotic fashion designer, Reynolds Woodcock, who fashions dresses for London’s high-society. Playing on themes of obsession and control, the movie is a poignant take on the possibilities of love as an artist, much in the vein of The Red Shoes.
For the film score, Greenwood took his primary inspirations from the music of the ‘50s that characters such as Reynolds Woodcock might have listened to. In particular, he explored the string arrangements and accompaniments from popular big band jazz albums.
In the cue “House of Woodcock”, an immensely romantic and luxurious piano figure dominates the space in the beginning, while a subtle string melody sneaks into the background. During the second iteration of the piano figure, the strings elaborate and decorate the main motif with sweeping melody figures, then descend into the background before emerging once again into a rich texture. The film score is graceful, romantic, and grand – a fitting accompaniment to the ideas in Andersons’ story.
Another of Jonny Greenwood’s string of excellent collaborations with Paul Thomas Anderson, The Master is a psychological drama that explores themes of cult-mentality, addiction, and existential crises in post-World War II America. Joaquin Phoenix plays a struggling Navy veteran who stows away on board the ship of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd, a leader of a pseudo-religious movement called “The Cause.” Phoenix’s character becomes so intrigued by The Cause that he ends up traveling with Hoffman’s character to spread its teachings.
The influences on the film are partly based on the life stories of both John Steinbeck and the founder of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard, early scenes from another Anderson film, There Will Be Blood, and various novels including V. by Thomas Pynchon. As such, Jonny Greenwood’s film score moves in a sort of cyclical, cyclone-esque fashion with huge swathes of woodwinds and strings whirling around each other, only to emerge in a glimmering, unified beauty.
In the cue “Overtones”, Greenwood deftly blends a variety of tonal colours into a brilliant collage. The cue opens with a cacophony of slides and tremolos in the strings, only to fade out into some lush, Gershwin-meets-Cage chordal passages. The whole thing seems very nautical, moving in crests and troughs. The film score also plays heavily on one of Greenwood's signature moves: harmonic overtones in the string section.
THERE WILL BE BLOOD
Jonny Greenwood’s first collaboration with Paul Thomas Anderson was 2007’s period-drama There Will Be Blood. The film follows the story of silver-prospector-turned-oil-man, Daniel Plainview. Loosely based on the Upton Sinclair novel, Oil!, the film is a dark and gruesome portrayal of robber-baron style capitalism in the American southwest during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Anderson initially tapped Greenwood for the film score after hearing a recording of his 2005 composition “Popcorn Superhet Receiver” for the BBC Concert Orchestra. The piece was inspired by the Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, which leans heavily on Penderecki’s unique notational system and dense, dissonant string harmonies. Greenwood expanded on ideas in his BBC piece to create the hauntingly beautiful soundscapes and film score for There Will Be Blood.
The cue “Open Spaces” opens with a leaping interval in the low strings, followed by an Aaron Copland-esque ascending string pad. The motif repeats a handful of times before a twisting and slightly terrifying descending melody line enters. There is a simultaneously lulling and unsettling feeling about the cue – almost like we are in a bit of sleep paralysis and unable to wake up. The result is a bizarre, anxious feeling of standing alone in the windy plains. Looking out at nothing but dusty bushes.
Pablo Larraín’s 2021 biopic, Spencer, details the existential crises of Princess Diana of Wales as she mulls divorcing her husband, Prince Charles, and leaving England’s Royal Family. Jonny Greenwood’s immersive film score blends elements of free-jazz, electronica, and church organ music with Baroque-sounding string and piano compositions to build a character deep in the throes of mental anguish.
According to Greenwood in The New Yorker’s interview, he “wanted some colour and chaos. Obviously, there are slightly clumsy parallels with Diana, but that was a thought as well: it’d be nice to have this quite staid, Baroque, rigid music, and this colourful, free thing fighting against it or going along with it.”
The main theme of Princess Diana, expressed in the cue “Spencer”, is heard in different iterations and instrumentations throughout the film score. As a work of solo piano, it resembles in some ways Greenwood’s cue “House of Woodcock” in its melancholy, romantic nature.
POWER OF THE DOG
Jonny Greenwood’s most recent film score, Jane Campion’s Power of the Dog, is perhaps his most elegant and refined work to-date. The film is based on Thomas Savage's 1967 novel of the same title and covers themes such as love, grief, resentment, jealousy, masculinity, and sexuality.
Greenwood blends elements of horns, strings, and player piano in his unique take on the “Western” genre. Always a fan of software instruments and synthesizers, Greenwood wrote special software to mimic the paper-roll that would normally drive a player-piano. Additionally, Greenwood used a tuning wrench to gradually adjust the tuning of the piano strings within the film score, further mimicking the character Rose’s gradual mental unravelling.
The cue “West” bears some resemblance to “Open Spaces”: a slowly building string melody winds its way through the soundscape, shifting between light, airy openness and unsettled darkness. The second iteration of the melody features a high-register violin solo that pierces through the texture. Greenwood’s film score is romantic, without being overbearing, maintaining a cold sense of fragility throughout.
THE FUTURE OF JONNY GREENWOOD’S FILM SCORES
Jonny Greenwood’s development as a film composer and his transportive movie scores have been beautiful to experience. From his early experiments with the BBC Concert Orchestra, to his latest Hollywood works Spencer and Power of the Dog, it will be fascinating to hear what the composer comes up with next.
Cover Credit: KIRSTY GRIFFIN/COURTESY OF NETFLIX
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Writer | Edward Bond
Edward Bond is a multi-instrumentalist composer, performer, and writer currently bouncing between Trondheim and Berlin. He apparently has the eyes of the devil, enjoys leopard prints, and will read your tarot, but not your future.