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The Cinematic Scores of Jonny Greenwood

As part of the Watershed’s annual Filmic season designed to highlight the ties between cinema and music, a collection of films scored by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood are being screened over the course of February.

Rising to fame in the early 90s as that floppy-haired guitarist who made those distorted guitar noises in Creep, Greenwood’s musical sensibilities quickly matured. Kid A, released in 2000, saw Greenwood first attempt composing for orchestra (not bad for a first try).

Soon after, Greenwood scored his first film – the British documentary Bodysong (2003). The film uses a cinematic collage of photographs and video footage to tell the story of human life. It was well received and gave an indication as to the potential Greenwood had for conveying emotion and driving forward narrative arcs through scoring.

Paul Thomas Anderson reportedly saw the film’s premier at the Rotterdam Film Festival and was hugely impressed. This lay the foundation of a collaborative relationship between director and composer which would generate several astonishing pieces of cinema.

The pair worked together first on There Will Be Blood (2007), a harrowing saga showing the downfall of a maniacal oil-baron played by Daniel Day-Lewis. Greenwood’s score is littered with dissonant, haunting string a-la Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and is interspersed with beautiful moments of tranquility. It wonderfully highlights the almost unbearable tension and melancholy which the film so effectively creates.

Earlier this month, the film was shown at Colston Hall with a live rendition of the score performed by Greenwood himself and the London Contemporary Orchestra.

The pair’s most recent collaboration, Inherent Vice (2014), showcases a more light-hearted approach to sound-tracking by Greenwood. Joaquin Phoenix plays a stoner/Private Investigator living in 1970s California who gets tied up in the attempted abduction of his ex-girlfriend’s new lover. Greenwood’s eclectic score perfectly reflects the almost goofy, Cohen Brothers-esque tone of the film. It spans a wide range of instrumentation from full orchestra to a simple rock ensemble or guitar, drums and bass.

Filmically, The Master (2012) is certainly Greenwood and Anderson’s most difficult work to penetrate. Despite the beautiful cinematography and the universally praised acting by the films three leads – Joaquin Phoenix, Phillip Seymour-Hoffman and Amy Adams –  it can seem somewhat aimless at points. As Roger Ebert states, the film is ‘fabulously well-acted and crafted, but when I reach or it, my hand closes on air.’ It showcases many excellent cinematic elements but struggles to communicate whatever message it is trying to portray.

Greenwood’s score, however, is perhaps his greatest to date. It is more experimental than his other works, drawing from eastern musical traditions, jazz and contemporary classical. Complex percussive rhythms are combined with harp, woodwind and the dissonant strings which have come to be recognized as characteristic of Greenwood’s scores.

     – The late Philip Seymour Hoffman in PTA’s The Master

Outside of collaborations with Paul Thomas Anderson, Greenwood has scored Norwegian Wood (2010), an adaptation of the Murakami novel of the same name as well as We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011).

What makes Greenwood a master of his craft is his nuanced ability to understand the emotion a director is attempting to convey and his skill in capturing this emotion through any number of musical styles. His musical arsenal is huge, drawing inspiration from a wide range of musical cultures allowing him to draw on innumerable different sources to achieve the desired effect.

As he grows as an artist, his musical influences will only expand. Junun (2015), an album Greenwood recorded with Indian musician Shye Ben Tzur (accompanied by a documentary directed by, you guessed it, Paul Thomas Anderson) only goes to show that his musical knowledge is ever-expanding.

Another collaboration between PTA and Greenwood due for release in late 2017 and with the trajectory the pair is on, this should excite great expectations from film and music lovers alike.