July 6, 2018
video essay

Watch: Could Composer Jonny Greenwood be Considered an Auteur?

The Oscar-nominated composer's work has enhanced each film he touches. 

It's not every day that a new film is accompanied by special screenings featuring a live-score performed by a 40-person orchestra. Such was the case with Phantom Thread, however, Paul Thomas Anderson's award-winning period piece starring Daniel Day-Lewis and scored by the director's frequent collaborator Jonny Greenwood.

Taking place at both The Theatre at Ace Hotel in Los Angeles and BAM’s Howard Gilman Opera House in Brooklyn (where a second show was added to accompany the first sold-out screening), the score for Phantom Thread was the rare piece of film music that developed a rabid fanbase from the minute the movie opened. Fans came in droves to hear the Radiohead guitarist's music come to life right before their ears. Another live-score performance of a Greenwood composition (with the artist in person) will be taking place next week at the Alamo Drafthouse in Downtown Brooklyn.

Having worked with Anderson on five films—Phantom Thread, Junun, Inherent Vice, The Master, andThere will be Blood—Greenwood has been, along with cinematographer Robert Elswit, one of Anderson's most trusted collaborators. In a new video essay from Fandor, the concept of Greenwood as a "score auteur" is addressed and broken down, providing examples of recurring traits in the musician's tingling, ethereal compositions.

Primarily providing examples from There will be Blood and The Master, the video is a concise work of evaluation and appreciation; the video's creator, Jacob T. Swinney, is clearly a big fan of Mr. Greenwood. Presented in short, segmented clips, Swinney makes clear that the composer's scores for these two films mirror the chaotic disorder of their narrative. Sudden, tense, and often implying a character who's both threatened and unbalanced, Greenwood's work here deepens the impact of a world burning amongst its characters. 

"Percussive and combative and erratic, this track expertly communicates the essence of Freddie Quell."

In some instances, his scores even merge with the diegetic audio of the scene it's laid over, as demonstrated via a moment in The Master where Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) goes feasting for some coconuts. "As Freddie closes his eyes," Swinney observes, "a new composition joins in, commanding and unpredictable and competing with diegetic noises."

Early in the film, Freddie climbs a tree in an attempt to knock down a coconut with a sharp piece of metal. The sounds of his slashing and slicing are accompanied by a similar beat underscoring the comedic value of his frustrating, barbaric predicament. "Percussive and combative and erratic," Swinney continues, "this track expertly communicates the essence of Freddie Quell. This is what he has become, a raw, unpredictable mess." 

Digging deeper into Greenwood's deliberate style, Swinney notes the composer's use of time signatures, in particular, 4/4 and 3/4 in the case of Lynne Ramsay's You Were Never Really Here (that's right, Greenwood also works with filmmakers other than Anderson, but coincidentally enough, rarely without Joaquin Phoenix in a leading role). Here, the score has more of a ripple effect, the sounds banging against each other like a frantic beatboxer trying not to trip over himself.

That impression, jarring as it may be, is intentional. Swinney notes that "Like Freddie in The Master, Joaquin Phoenix's character in this movie is also suffering from PTSD. Once again, Greenwood uses his music to effectively convey the inner turmoil of the character." 

What do you think of Jonny Greenwood's scoring work? Do you have a particular favorite? Let us know your favorite in the comments below.     

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