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Radiohead Guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s Film Scores: A Listener’s Guide

With ‘Phantom Thread,’ the musician is now an Oscar nominee. Here’s a look back on his past works in cinema

Radiohead Guitarist Jonny Greenwood's Film Scores: A User's Guide

Now that Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood is an Oscar nominee, Rolling Stone looks back at his past works in film.

Paul Bergen/Redferns; Focus Features

For the past 15 years, Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood has enjoyed another professional life as a film composer. Now, a decade after the Academy disqualified his score for There Will Be Blood because it incorporated previous music he’d written in it, he has become an Oscar nominee for the lushly orchestral, romantic score he contributed to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread.

Despite the acknowledgement, the prospect of winning an Oscar doesn’t totally bowl him over. “[I’m] not sure about awards,” he said in a recent interview with Esquire. “I get quite enough praise and recognition from my peers already.”

Regardless, his work in film deserves a closer look. So in anticipation of Hollywood’s big night, Rolling Stone has broken down his contributions to each of the eight films Greenwood has worked on so far.


Bodysong
(2003)
The film: An 88-minute, narration-free documentary about human life, from conception to death, built from found footage.

What the score sounds like: A collage of shimmering, impressionistic strings and pianos that occasionally give way to lightly rocking acoustic guitar interludes, Stockhausen-esque cacophonies and Penderecki-inspired discord. One moment can sound like a church organ, another a Twenties jazz party.

What Greenwood said about it: “I started using modes of limited transposition in the music for Bodysong,” Greenwood once told The Quietus, referring to composer Olivier Messiaen’s theory of grouping melodies around interval groups. “[I did this] partly as a way to tie lots of disparate styles of music together – the jazz musicians could improvise using them, the laptop could be restricted to these notes – and so it just helped create some continuity. Always nice to have a set of limits or rules to work against too.”

What director Simon Pummell said: “Jonny always wanted to go against the grain, mess with expectations,” he told Uncut. “At one point he was looking into the possibilities of soundscapes of extinct languages. The way the percussion in the ‘Violence’ section slowly shifts into a more synchronized, obsessional beat – and moves from excitement to something oppressive, as the images escalate from brawling to genocidal brutality – is an example of the music really telling the story together with the images.”


There Will Be Blood
(2007)
The film: Oilman Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) will stop at nothing to build his fortune.

What the score sounds like: Sparse strings slither and swell expressionistically with gentle piano and solo violin reprieves. At its most ominous, it recalls some of the more difficult passages by Stravinsky and Bartók. Greenwood reportedly gave Paul Thomas Anderson 90 minutes of music, though the soundtrack album runs a little over half an hour.

What Greenwood said about it: “I think I got a very easy ride with the director, because he’s enormously enthusiastic and obsessed with music and likes to have it very prominently in his films,” he once said. “It got to the point where we had too much music in and we had to take it out. He was just so excited. … When he uses music, he uses just music and no talking for two or three minutes in a film. I was lucky to get that job.”

What director Paul Thomas Anderson said: “I knew there were arrangements that he had done within those Radiohead songs that obviously said he could do more than just play guitar in a band,” he told The New York Times. “And I thought, ‘If the opportunity arises, I bet he could do something interesting on a film score.’ I was just sort of waiting for the opportunity.”


Norwegian Wood
(2010)
The film: A period piece – based on the Haruki Murakami novel of the same name – set in the Sixties about Toru Watanabe (Ken’ichi Matsuyama) who finds love with the girlfriend of a friend who recently died by suicide, as well as another woman.

What the score sounds like: Lush strings that sound like shadows of Bach and Brahms slowly hinting at deeper melodies, coupled with classical acoustic guitar and Greenwood’s trademark discordant Penderecki worship.

What Greenwood said about it: “It was just seeing a few clips of how he was filming it and reading the script and eventually reading the book,” he once said. “There’s lots of stuff in the book about music lessons and learning to play Bach on guitars and the piano teacher who goes to this retreat after a breakdown and has to learn to play the guitar just to have some music. It wasn’t in the film, but it helped me write lots of the guitar music, because I was trying to do it as though I was her and trying to play classical music slightly incompetently on a guitar. I found it very easy to do.”

What director Tran Anh Hung said: “I told him that I like music to appear when the emotions are already there – so that it confirms the emotions and makes them stronger, or more lyrical somehow,” he told the Chicago Reader. “This meant for him that the music would come at the end of the scene. I told him that I also like to use the same piece of music in different scenes, so that it creates a feeling that grows over the course of a movie.”


We Need to Talk About Kevin
(2011)
The film: A mother, played by Tilda Swinton, struggles to comprehend her son’s propensity toward defiance, darkness and violence.

What the score sounds like: Strings, piano and fuzzy electronics forming fluttering clusters of sound.

What Greenwood said about it: “It’s serious subject matter but [it’s] a good chance to play with new instruments and get new players in,” he said. “We used this harpist called Jean Kelly who plays harp strung with metal strings, so it sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard. It’s wonderful.”

What director Lynne Ramsay said: “I sent him a rough cut of the film, and he got back to me very quickly, saying he loved it, but was terrified by it as he’s got children,” she told DIY. “Jonny’s wasn’t a horror score at all, but about bringing layers and tones.”


The Master
(2012)
The film: A sailor (Joaquin Phoenix) struggles to accept the Scientology-like teachings of an L. Ron Hubbard–like demagogue (Philip Seymour Hoffman).

What the score sounds like: Woodwinds honk in succession, strings go from chaos to unity and everything occasionally works in concert for programmatic, somewhat Gershwin-esque glimmering tableaus.

What Greenwood said about it: “That’s the sound of strings playing with guitar picks,” Greenwood said of one of the textures in an interview with NPR at the time. “What I really enjoy about writing for orchestras is realizing that ­– and it’s kind of self-evident – but the fact that they are 48 individuals. It’s not, you know, a preset on a keyboard. It’s all these people who have opinions and who are making decisions about how to play.”

What director Paul Thomas Anderson said: “[Working with Jonny is] a lot of head-scratching and [hearing him say], like, ‘Oh, I really don’t know if I can do this,’ or, ‘No, I can’t do this,’ or even, y’know, ‘I just shouldn’t do this,'” he told The New York Times when he was working on The Master. “And then the next thing you know, you have an e-mail with like, 45 minutes of music in your in-box, and it’s all amazing and wildly different and terrific. That’s kind of him in a nutshell: ‘No, no. I really can’t. I don’t know how to do this.’ And then you get this huge platter of stuff.”


Inherent Vice
(2014)
The film: A detective played by Joquin Phoenix investigates the death of an ex-girlfriend in this adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel.

What the score sounds like: Otherworldy, shimmery guitar and orchestral sounds, and lush, Bernard Hermann-esque strings that complement a song score of Sixties pop classics.

What Greenwood said about it: “[With] Inherent Vice … the need [for the music] was to be sincerely romantic,” Greenwood told Esquire in 2018. “Inherent Vice has, like the book. such a weird pitch to it: very amusing, full of fantastic grotesquery and jokes, but not just a joke.”

What director Paul Thomas Anderson said: “When Jonny first read the script there was all the stuff in there from the book about the Arpanet, which was like the original Internet computer,” he told The Guardian. “So he started out doing some more electronic stuff, as if these sounds were coming out of the computer. But then these other ideas started to present themselves – orchestral ideas. It’s now getting to the spot in my relationship with Jonny when I can maybe mention a thing or two but really just leave him to his own devices. He’s always the first viewer, too.”


Junun
(2015)
The film: A documentary about Greenwood’s collaboration with Indian-via-Israeli composer Shye Ben-Tzur and the 19-member Rajasthan Express.

What the music sounds like: Free-spirited, rhythm-heavy Middle Eastern music with heavy beats and touches of jazz.

What Greenwood said about it: “There were similarities: In my head, it was a little like being the bass player – guitarist in a good Seventies funk band, like an Indian version of the JB’s,” Greenwood told Rolling Stone. “That stuff doesn’t change chords much either and in fact has a similar ecstatic mood.”

What director Paul Thomas Anderson said: “The power went out all the time,” he once said. “There was a battery that would run for about 10 minutes. Jonny was happy to [tell] these guys, ‘You’ve got 10 minutes,’ because if it was up to them they would endlessly noodle and tune and play and improvise music. So we said, ‘You’ve got 10 minutes.'” 


Phantom Thread
(2017)
The film: Troubled, obsessive fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) lives life in a tightly wound prison of his own making until a muse, Alma (Vicky Krieps), enters his life.

What the score sounds like: Whispering, whistling violins crying in unison at one moment, soft, eerie string quartets and woodwinds playing sounds that work against each other the next. It’s a mix of subtlety and beauty that dovetails perfectly into the plot.

What Greenwood said about it: “We talked a lot about Fifties music, what was popularly heard then as well as what was being written and recorded,” he told Variety. “Nelson Riddle and Glenn Gould’s Bach recordings were the main references. I was interested in the kind of jazz records that toyed with incorporating big string sections, Ben Webster made some good ones, and focus on what the strings were doing rather than the jazz musicians themselves.”

What director Paul Thomas Anderson said: “[The score] is more than we have ever needed [from him] before,” he told Rolling Stone. “I would just sort of crack a whip that said, more romantic, more romantic, more romantic.”

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