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PHANTOM THREAD – Jonny Greenwood

January 13, 2018 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Phantom Thread is a period romantic drama film written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. Set in England in the 1950s, it stars Daniel Day-Lewis as Reynolds Woodcock, a fashion designer and exquisite dressmaker, who runs a high-end haute couture business with his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), and whose regular clients include the cream of European royalty. Reynolds is brilliant, an artist of tremendous skill and taste, but is also neurotic, difficult, irritable, and unhealthily obsessed with his late mother; he also frequently embarks on fiery relationships with women that fizzle out as soon as he gets bored, upon which he begins treating them with casual disdain. One day Reynolds meets Alma (Vicky Krieps), a shy waitress, to whom he is unexpectedly attracted. Before long Reynolds has moved Alma into his house in London, and she quickly becomes his muse, challenging him, confounding him, but also inspiring greatness in his work. However, their relationship is tempestuous, and before long it is heading down an unexpectedly dark path which may have serious repercussions for everyone involved.

The film is brilliant, beautiful to look at, and features tremendous acting performances, but it is also frustrating and occasionally a little impenetrable: it unfolds at a glacial pace, and the direction that Reynolds and Alma’s relationship takes will undoubtedly take many people by surprise – if they can even accept it in the first place. It touches on themes of perfection, obsession, and psychosexual power dynamics which challenge traditional relationship conventions; by the end, it’s coming close to something akin to sadomasochism crossed with Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy, which is a sentence I never thought I would write in a film music review. Both Day-Lewis and Krieps are mesmerizing whenever they are on screen together, and the production design (by Mark Tildesley and Véronique Melery) and costume design (by Mark Bridges) look to be guaranteed Oscar nominees. Day-Lewis has said that Phantom Thread will likely be his last ever film role, in which case this is the swansong of one of the cinema’s greatest ever actors.

The other significant artistic success in the film is the score, by English composer Jonny Greenwood. This is Greenwood’s fourth film for director Anderson, after There Will Be Blood in 2007, The Master in 2012, and Inherent Vice in 2014. Greenwood is a fascinating composer; to most people he is still probably best known for being the lead guitarist of the massively successful alternative rock band Radiohead, but his classical music credentials are just as impressive – he was appointed composer-in-residence to the BBC Concert Orchestra in 2004, and accepted a residency with the Australian Chamber Orchestra in 2012. His work is aggressive, challenging, and occasionally very dissonant, in the style of his idol, Polish classical composer Krzysztof Penderecki. As such, Greenwood’s music could never be described as being ‘traditionally beautiful’ – until now.

Phantom Thread is a score which examines the two halves of Reynolds’s life – his beautiful, ordered, structured, classical life as a fashion designer, and the chaotic, needy, unpleasant, self-destructive side of his personal life – and how these two aspects are finally brought together by Alma. To capture these opposed forces, Greenwood’s score treads a line: on one side is harsh, crisp atonality, while on the other side is overwhelming musical magnificence, and it is not until the end that the two styles reconcile. Greenwood uses a fairly large string orchestra augmented by piano, harp, and percussion – very little woodwind, no brass at all – and contributes several recurring themes which move and develop alongside the film.

The film’s overarching theme is the Phantom Thread theme, a four note motif embellished by lush classical orchestrations and flourishes. It appears in four variations across the score, titled I-IV, and is written mostly for a bank of strings, which shift the central motif around the section while the other parts provide deep, intricate counterpoint. The theme itself is a little sad, perhaps, and occasionally disappears into itself with repetitive self-reflection, but it’s undeniably beautiful, and showcases Greenwood’s now obvious skill at string arrangements. The performance by the massed ranks of the string section in “Phantom Thread I” offers the theme in its standard form; in “Phantom Thread II’ Greenwood moves the melody away from strings and turns it into a delicate duet for solo piano and solo violin; while in “Phantom Thread IV” the piano departs and is replaced by a string quartet playing in a more impressionistic fashion.

However, it is in “Phantom Thread III” that the melody explodes. Here Greenwood takes inspiration not from Penderecki but from another great Polish composer, Wojciech Kilar. In this sumptuous cue the theme is taken up by the entire string orchestra, complete with rolling percussion, with the main melodic line carried by rich, deep, luxurious cellos. The stately pacing, the dramatic chord building, the contrapuntal development, and the emotional weight are all typical of the late, great composer of scores like Bram Stoker’s Dracula and The Portrait of a Lady. The cue plays several times throughout the course of the film, and usually signifies a turning point in Reynolds and Alma’s relationship, most notably the conclusive revelation during one of the shocking final scenes. This is Greenwood at his absolute best.

The other significant recurring idea is the Sandalwood theme, which represents the more tempestuous and dangerous side of Reynolds and Alma (the theme relates to Alma’s scent preferences – sandalwood and rosewater- which sister Cyril recognizes as an encroaching, disruptive presence in their ordered life). The two Sandalwood cues are more impressionistic, full of movement, a flock of sparkling, shimmering textures that dart between violins, violas, cellos, piano, and harp. The first one is spiky and nimble, the second is more languid.

Most of the rest of the score follows the blueprint set out in these two recurring ideas, but it is far from repetitive; on the contrary, Greenwood plays around with style and technique constantly, allowing the score to remain interesting throughout its running time. Some cues revel in rapturous beauty, while others are much more abstract and dissonant; “The Hem,” for example, is a curious piece for stark, harsh, thudding sound effects and a plucked harp, which becomes more aggressive and rhythmic, before eventually emerging into a hypnotic piece for dark cellos and contrapuntal pianos.

“Alma” is a hesitant reflection of her character’s progression through the film, and her outward demeanor; initially, the strings are barely above a whisper, and the pianos so soft that you can hear the hammers striking the wires and the pedals being depressed, but gradually the strings begin carefully calling out for attention, and by the conclusion the piece is more confident, more self assured, but tinged with more than a hint of melancholy. The subsequent “Boletus Felleus” is named after a specific type of mushroom – you’ll know why after you’ve seen the film – and is one of the most challenging cues on the album, comprising a series of overlapping string textures that occasionally become quite cacophonous, despite containing the score’s one moment where woodwinds are used as complementary textures.

Meanwhile, the music in “Catch Hold” is similar to the Sandalwood theme, with piano and string textures that seem to glitter and twinkle as they dance around each other, while “Never Cursed” builds on the previous cue’s ideas but introduces a stark string punctuation texture that cuts aggressively through the bed of liquid violin chords. Later, “Barbara Rose” is much more harsh and angular, with repeated pulsating string and harp textures, both plucked and bowed, which have a frantic edge to them. The cue underscores one of the film’s more humorous scenes in which Alma convinces Reynolds to take back a masterpiece dress he designed for a wealthy elderly socialite after she gets sloppily drunk while wearing it, saying she ‘doesn’t deserve it’; the visual of them forcefully removing the dress from Barbara Rose’s passed-out form, and then sprinting through the streets of London with it trailing behind them like a vast sail, is amusingly irreverent, but also marks a turning point in their relationship.

On the other hand, “The Tailor of Fitzrovia” is soft, and quietly elegant. “That’s As May Be” features magical harp waves accompanied by languorous, glistening string textures, but has a slightly carefree and almost dream-like feel that is very appealing. “I’ll Follow Tomorrow” is a piano rhapsody that almost feels improvised, running up and down scales. “House of Woodcock” is simply gorgeous, a nostalgic reflection of the film’s setting and place in time, and which seems to take inspiration from the sound of those well-loved British post-war dance bands led by people like Annunzio Mantovani and Edmundo Ros. The cue has a classical English sound, with florid and elaborate piano scales and heavenly, luxurious string cascades which virtually melt into your ear.

These ideas continue into the conclusive two cues, “Endless Superstition” and “For the Hungry Boy,” both of which are just sublime. The first cue is underpinned with the tiniest sense of duplicity, but the finale is a poetic reflection of their new-found status with each other. In context, the romantic string and piano writing stands in tonal opposition to the truly shocking but consensual power dynamic that has developed between Reynolds and Alma, making something that should be completely horrifying feel instead like the beginning of a beautiful dream. On album, it’s an unabashed musical delight.

This is a quite masterful score from Jonny Greenwood, one which gets deeply under the skin of the damaged, potentially dangerous, but nevertheless mutually fulfilling relationship at the center of the story. The abstract, impressionistic, modernistic textures perfectly capture the torment that both characters at times feel, as well as their willful and often unpleasant personalities. Then, when he opens up his orchestra and performs the Phantom Thread theme with glorious melodrama, or when he writes elegant romantic music for what should be the dreadful finale, the whole thing simply soars. As much as I appreciated the technique and approach of scores like There Will Be Blood and The Master, Phantom Thread is the first score from Greenwood where my emotional connection to the music has been as great as my intellectual one. It has been, quite rightly, lauded by critics across the world, has already received Golden Globe and BAFTA nominations, and looks dead-set to earn Greenwood his first trip to the Oscars. This is one of the scores of the year.

Buy the Phantom Thread soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Phantom Thread I (3:36)
  • The Hem (2:43)
  • Sandalwood I (2:40)
  • The Tailor of Fitzrovia (2:31)
  • Alma (4:07)
  • Boletus Felleus (3:13)
  • Phantom Thread II (3:55)
  • Catch Hold (2:15)
  • Never Cursed (3:46)
  • That’s As May Be (1:27)
  • Phantom Thread III (2:22)
  • I’ll Follow Tomorrow (1:22)
  • House of Woodcock (3:53)
  • Sandalwood II (3:43)
  • Barbara Rose (4:40)
  • Endless Superstition (3:05)
  • Phantom Thread IV (2:59)
  • For the Hungry Boy (3:36)

Running Time: 55 minutes 48 seconds

Nonesuch (2017)

Music composed by Jonny Greenwood. Conducted by Robert Ziegler and Robert Ames. Performed by The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the London Contemporary Orchestra and the Pioro-Morton-Bonneton-Coates String Quartet. Featured musical soloists Galya Bisengalieva, Katherine Tinker, Duncan Riddell, Daniel Pioro, Jonathan Morton, Charlotte Bonneton, Oliver Coates, Eleanor Turner, Edward Cervenka and Jonny Greenwood. Orchestrations by Jonny Greenwood, Robert Ziegler and Hugh Brunt. Recorded and mixed by Graeme Stewart, Nick Wollage and Fiona Cruikshank. Edited by Graeme Stewart. Album produced by Jonny Greenwood.

  1. January 14, 2018 at 12:21 am

    Nice review and you are quite right on the dual faced character of the score what is also my objection. As it will work perfectly in the movie the intellectual part as you call it will not appeal to a larger audience; 6/18 are indeed gorgeous. The equation springs to mind with former Oscar winner Gary Yearson’s music for “Turner” , highly accoladed but rejected by Soundtrack fans (lowest sales for an Oscar winning score). But you pointed out that difference in mentioning Penderecki and Kilar already.

    • Dono
      January 18, 2018 at 1:24 pm

      Oscar winner?

  2. Dono
    January 18, 2018 at 1:34 pm

    Great review. My favourite score of 2017 (so far). This and Alexandre Desplat’s The Shape of Water are the only two scores that deserve the award attention they’re getting.

  1. February 1, 2018 at 10:00 am

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