Home > Reviews > THE MASTER – Jonny Greenwood

THE MASTER – Jonny Greenwood

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Despite living in Los Angeles, and despite being a very casual acquaintance of someone who I know for a fact is one, I know very little about Scientology. You occasionally see them set up on Hollywood Boulevard, offering ‘stress tests’ to unsuspecting tourists, and you hear odd stories about Tom Cruise in the tabloid news, but beyond that my actual knowledge of the details of the late L. Ron Hubbard’s much-derided ‘celebrity religion’ is sketchy at best – little more than lurid tales of science fiction, aliens, past lives, and the like. In Paul Thomas Anderson’s film The Master, the word ‘scientology’ is never uttered, but it’s clear what is going on, and the film is a less-than-pretty expose of the origins of the religion.

Set in the 1950s, the film stars Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell, a WWII navy veteran with post-traumatic stress whose assimilation back into to civilian life is less than easy. A womanizer and a drunk with a violent temper, Freddie seems to be on the path to self-destruction, until he meets Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a charming, well-educated ‘self-help’ guru, who travels the United States with his serious wife Peggy (Amy Adams) and a cadre of acolytes and sycophants, espousing his book – “The Cause”. Finding meaning in Dodd’s words and exercises, and despite his damaging and self-destructive personal issues, Freddie quickly becomes a trusted confidante, but before long his volatile personality clashes with Dodd’s calm demeanor, threatening to bring down the entire organization from within. Although the core concept of the film – an unyielding examination of the cult of personality and new age religions – is an interesting one, and despite crackerjack performances from Phoenix and Hoffman especially, Anderson’s pacing and direction unfortunately makes the film something of a chore to experience, burying any deeper points Anderson wanted to make underneath layers of uncomfortable silences and impenetrable stares.

The music for The Master is by British composer and rock musician Jonny Greenwood, who is still best known for his time spent as lead guitarist of the alternative rock band Radiohead, but who has been shown to have a great deal of classical compositional talent, both in his film work, and in his classical commissions for the BBC Concert Orchestra. Much like his scores for Norwegian Wood, We Need To Talk About Kevin, and his last work for this director, There Will Be Blood from 2007, The Master is a difficult work which will alienate a great deal of its audience. Written mainly for a string orchestra, it clearly bears the musical characteristics of Greenwood’s classical hero, Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki, as well as echoes of some of the most challenging composers from film music’s history, including Alex North, Lenny Rosenman and Jerry Fielding.

The score veers from the tonal to the atonal, the consonant to the dissonant, the pleasantly harmonic to the virtually unlistenable, often within the same cue, mirroring the schizophrenic unpredictability of Freddie’s personality, and the clash of calmness and violence between Freddie and Dodd. The opening “Overtones” is a perfect example of this, in which Greenwood has a bed of strings and a subtle pipe organ – possible to hint at a spiritual element – play a sequence of chords that are by turns warm and welcoming, and chaotically noisy.

This sense of musical displacement continues throughout almost the entire score, from the babbling woodwinds in “Time Hole” and the mesmerizing harp scales and strangely playful oboe textures in “Alethia”, to the unexpected world music nuances of “Atomic Healer”, the pseudo-religioso church organ and string chords of “The Split Saber”, and the vicious Threnody-like dissonance of “Baton Sparks”. It wants to be pious and reverent, and has all the trappings one would expect to hear in church music that has a great deal to say, but Greenwood cleverly twists his music to be a representation of Dodd’s own teachings: they pick at the surface of things, fudge the details, blur the corners, and make bold statements about the world and his importance within it, but they have no emotional core, no sense of direction, and little in the way of tangible substance to grasp on to.

“Able-Bodied Seamen” is one of the score’s standout cues, underpinned as it is by an insistent subtle percussion beat, and with all manner of woodwind and string-based flutterings dancing over the top. It has a vaguely Indian, perhaps Moroccan influence to it which is quite appealing. The barest hints of thematic consistency peek through the haze in ‘Back Beyond” and the conclusive “Sweetness of Freddie”, while the penultimate cue “Application 45 Version 1” is just over five-minutes of repetitive, hypnotic build up and release, maintained by a relentless col legno beat in the strings and a grinding cello phrase. For the most part, though, this is a score about textures and feelings; shades of light and dark, good and evil, chaos and harmony. It’s a clever score, which juxtaposes and often plays in jarring counterpoint to the action on screen, but nevertheless retains a compositional excellence and mastery of orchestral technique that is never anything less than impressive.

The score is rounded out by a quartet of period songs, ranging from Ella Fitzgerald singing “Get Thee Behind Me Satan” to Jo Stafford’s “No Other Love”, and a Madisen Beaty rendition of the classic “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree With Anyone Else But Me”, which sounds ridiculously upbeat and cheerful in these surroundings.

Having been denied a chance at gold due to a technicality with the score for There Will Be Blood in 2007, I can definitely see this score picking up an Academy Award nomination next spring. It’s the type of score the Academy likes: serious music written by a composer better known for his work in other genres, for a critically acclaimed film, and which places emphasis on modernistic techniques and challenging collisions of sound. There’s a reason North and Rosenman picked up so many nominations over the course of their careers. This is not a score for the easily bored, or anyone who craves thematic consistency of major key harmony in their scores; I myself don’t really *enjoy* listening to The Master for musical pleasure per se, but I do know intelligent musical composition when I hear it, and Jonny Greenwood has it in spades.

Rating: ****

Buy the Master soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Overtones (2:20)
  • Time Hole (1:42)
  • Back Beyond (3:42)
  • Get Thee Behind Me Satan (written by Irving Berlin, performed by Ella Fitzgerald) (3:47)
  • Alethia (4:06)
  • Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree With Anyone Else But Me (written by Lew Brown, Sam Stept and Charles Tobias, performed by Madisen Beaty) (1:36)
  • Atomic Healer (1:24)
  • Able-Bodied Seamen (3:54)
  • The Split Saber (3:41)
  • Baton Sparks (2:20)
  • No Other Love (written by Bob Russell and Paul Weston, performed by Jo Stafford) (3:00)
  • His Master’s Voice (3:34)
  • Application 45 Version 1 (5:40)
  • Changing Partners (written by Larry Coleman and Joe Darion, performed by Helen Forrest) (2:42)
  • Sweetness of Freddie (3:25)

Running Time: 46 minutes 41 seconds

Nonesuch Records 532292 (2012)

Music composed by Jonny Greenwood. Conducted by Hugh Brunt, Daniel Pioro and Marek Moś. Performed by The London Contemporary Orchestra and The AUKSO Chamber Orchestra. Orchestrations by Jonny Greenwood. Recorded and mixed by Jonny Greenwood, Graeme Stewart, Ewa Guziolek-Tubelewicz and Piotr Witkowski. Album produced by Jonny Greenwood and Graeme Stewart.

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  1. Christopher
    October 6, 2012 at 12:25 pm | #1

    Good review. I found this score too difficult to enjoy. My five-year-old thought it was unbearable. During the second track he said, “This music is too crazy. I just want to listen to no music.” A few tracks later during a particularly terrifying moments full of unsettling strings he screamed, “TURN IT OFF! TURN IT OFF!”

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