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SPENCER – Jonny Greenwood

December 7, 2021 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in a car accident in Paris in August 1997 was a turning point in British contemporary culture. It shifted the perception of Diana in the public eye permanently – from fairytale princess to working royal, to wronged woman, to something approaching a martyr – while simultaneously changing the opinion of the royal family as a whole. The air of untouchable mystique that surrounded Queen Elizabeth, Prince Philip, Prince Charles, and the others, was irreparably shattered in the weeks after Diana’s death, mostly because of the apparent callousness and emotionlessness of their response to it all; the family’s tradition of keeping their personal opinions to themselves came across as cold, and the British public – who were grieving ‘the people’s princess’ – felt let down in a time when comfort from a monarch was needed by many. The repercussions of all this are still felt today, not least in terms of the contrasting press coverage of Diana’s sons William and Harry, and their respective spouses Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle, and much of this is what forms the backbone of the film Spencer, directed by Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín.

The film stars Kristen Stewart as Diana, and charts a weekend in her life over the Christmas period in 1991 when Diana – whose marriage is in tatters due to Charles’s affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles – is forced to endure numerous indignities at the hands of the other members of the royal family, until she suffers what is essentially a mental breakdown – she imagines herself being haunted by the ghost of Anne Boleyn, contemplates suicide on several occasions, and even receives a sexual proposition from one of her dressers – all the while trying to think of ways to ‘rescue’ her sons from this toxic environment. The film has been the recipient of a great deal of critical praise, especially for Stewart’s performance as Diana. She is ably supported by Jack Farthing as Charles, Stella Gonet as the Queen, Richard Sammel as Prince Philip, and stalwarts like Timothy Spall, Sally Hawkins, and Sean Harris as the senior members of the Sandringham staff.

Pablo Larraín has rather idiosyncratic musical taste when it comes to his films. His earliest works in South America were scored by local composers like Juan Cristóbal Meza, Carlos Cabezas, and the great Federico Jusid, and he then directed Mica Levi to an Oscar nomination for his English-language debut Jackie in 2016, despite Levi having not seen a frame of film or really read the script before she scored it. For Spencer, Larraín has turned to the English composer and rock musician Jonny Greenwood, for whom this is the second of his three major scores in 2021 (the others being The Power of the Dog and Licorice Pizza). Greenwood is a composer who never scores films in a conventional way, even when the films he’s scoring fit within an established genre. For Spencer, Greenwood does away entirely with the familiar ‘British period drama/royal family biopic’ sound and instead scores the film from the point of view of the emotions inside Diana’s head; as such, the end result sounds more like a horror score than anything else. Greenwood describes his score as “an attempt to do something that matched Diana: this hopeful free spirit in the middle of everything around her being quite rigid,” and to capture this he takes the seemingly incompatible styles of Handel-style baroque music and free jazz, and throws them together, resulting in a score which is at times beautiful and otherworldly, but also deeply troubling; the closest approximation I can think of is Ennio Morricone at his most bizarrely experimental.

The score’s main recurring idea, the Spencer theme, anchors the opening cue “Arrival, which begins morosely with a performance by a string quartet, before shifting into the free jazz textures, which are anchored by impressive performances by trumpeter Byron Wallen, pianist Alexander Hawkins, and drummer Tom Skinner, who is Greenwood’s band mate in his side project The Smile. The near-constant sound of a pipe organ gives the whole thing an overarching sense of not religious reverence, but unsettling menace, as Diana approaches the house at Sandringham for Christmas with the family like she is heading to her own execution. Curiously, the chord progressions of the main Spencer theme keep making me think it’s going to morph into the theme from Jurassic Park – I’m sure this is something that is happening entirely inside my own head, unless Greenwood was making some very oblique references to the royal family being metaphorical dinosaurs!

The main theme appears several times in subsequent cues. “Spencer” is probably the most traditionally appealing version, similar in tone and texture to the ‘House of Woodcock’ cues from the Oscar-nominated score for Phantom Thread, and with a lovely central piano performance that is elegant but is underpinned with an air of despondency. Similarly, Diana’s relationship with “The Boys” – her sons William and Harry – is characterized by another traditional performance of the Spencer theme, this time for classical strings which have a warmth that the rest of the score does not.

The rest of the score, as I suggested above, plays like a series of twisted variations on the two core sounds, with the string quartet representing the formal rigidity of the British monarchy, and the jazz representing Diana as a free-spirited tornado being stifled by the decorum and ritual. “Ancient and Modern” is an exploration of the string quartet sound, which combines with the harpsichord to get to the ancient, and with jazz trumpets to get to the modern, in an oddly hypnotic collision of textures. “Calling the Whipper In” – which underscores a scene where Diana intentionally and dangerously interrupts a pheasant hunt – is a mass of stabbing, chaotic Penderecki strings, frantic dissonant trumpets, and demented harpsichord scales, a musical depiction of a mind in chaos.

“The Pearls” underscores a bizarre dream sequence in which Diana hallucinates eating pearls out of her soup at a state dinner, and gradually shifts from gorgeous string quartet textures into something much more disturbing. “Invention for Harpsichord and Compression” takes the titular instrument – usually so delicate and refined – and makes it more intense, hammering away with fierce passion and gritted-teeth strength. “Frozen Three” is perhaps the apex/nadir of the experimentalism and dissonance in the score; Greenwood is doing deeply unnatural things to his string section here, and when he combines these screeches and scratches with yet more bluesy jazz improvisation, it may cause the unwary or the uneasy to leap for the stop button.

“Delusion/Miracle” has its primary focus on the jazz trio, performing a set of feverish, awkward, complex rhythms which eventually play in uneasy counterpoint with more regal strings; the stand-up bass has some especially complicated solos in this cue which are worth mentioning for the technical intricacy. “Partita in Five for Two Organs” is a deep, layered piece for pipe organs, which somehow come across as something of a lament for Diana, for her collapsing life, and for her collapsing sanity. “Home/Lacrimosa” overwhelms with a veritable waterfall of sounds from the organ and the orchestra; at times the music is very beautiful in a gloomy way, but it is also crushing with the weight and density of the piece. “Crucifix” is perhaps the most Morricone-esque cue in the score, a piece for harpsichord and strings which has a medieval-renaissance sound and an attractive but deeply tragic emotional impact.

“Press Call” has a prescient sense of foreboding, where the near-cacophonous collision of pipe organs has a chilling sense of impending doom; we all know what happened in that tunnel deep below the streets of Paris, paparazzi motorbikes hounding Diana’s car to it’s traumatic and tragic final demise. The conclusive “New Currency” – in which Diana gazes thoughtfully out over the Thames, contemplating her future and her life – blends moody strings with jazz textures for plucked bass, brushed snares, dreamy harp glissandi, and a wistful trumpet solo that sounds more like film noir than royal drama. It’s a thoughtful, slightly ambiguous end which doesn’t offer any specific commentary on Diana’s ultimate future; we all know how it ends for her, but for Diana in that moment there’s a determination to do right by her children, and herself, royal family be damned, and the new lushness of the jazz textures that have accompanied her throughout the film speak to that resolve.

Just like There Will Be Blood, The Master, and The Power of the Dog, Spencer is another one of those Jonny Greenwood scores that I admire and appreciate more than I like. Greenwood’s way of capturing Diana’s fragile psyche, and the crushing pressure of conformity and duty that is placed upon it by royal life, is cleverly depicted by the combination of experimental jazz and renaissance classicism. The main theme is lovely, especially in its two more straightforward performances, and the technical application and creativity shown throughout the score is absolutely praiseworthy.

But… again… I don’t actually like it very much. Free jazz is one of my least favorite genres of music, period, and while I can appreciate moments of highly avant garde dissonance as much as the next fellow, the sheer amount of it in this score is really rather daunting. In the end, as is the case with most Greenwood scores, your tolerance for extended periods of dissonance, weirdness, and surprising unconventionality will determine whether or not you can settle in for the long haul and listen.

Buy the Spencer soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Arrival (7:26)
  • Ancient and Modern (4:55)
  • Calling the Whipper In (2:54)
  • Spencer (1:44)
  • The Pearls (4:14)
  • Invention for Harpsichord and Compression (1:47)
  • Frozen Three (1:57)
  • The Boys (1:30)
  • Delusion/Miracle (4:10)
  • Partita in Five for Two Organs (1:58)
  • Home/Lacrimosa (4:20)
  • Crucifix (3:37)
  • Press Call (2:07)
  • New Currency (2:35)

Running Time: 45 minutes 06 seconds

Mercury KX (2021)

Music composed by Jonny Greenwood. Conducted by Hugh Brunt. Orchestrations by Jonny Greenwood. Recorded and mixed by Graeme Stewart and John Barrett. Edited by Graeme Stewart. Album produced by Jonny Greenwood.

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  1. December 7, 2021 at 9:58 am

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