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GLASS ONION – Nathan Johnson

November 29, 2022 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The unexpected success of the film Knives Out in 2019 led to immediate calls for a sequel; fans fell in love with Daniel Craig’s portrayal of Benoit Blanc, the master detective with an accent that sounds like a Cajun Foghorn Leghorn, and the disarming manner he solves murders in a way that would impress Agatha Christie. Writer-director Rian Johnson put Glass Onion into production almost immediately, but was knocked on the back foot by the COVID pandemic, before eventually deciding to incorporate elements of it into the plot of the film. The story is a labyrinthine whodunnit that revolves around a ‘murder mystery’ party held at the exotic island home of an Elon Musk-like billionaire, played by Edward Norton, where all the guests (Janelle Monáe, Kathryn Hahn, Leslie Odom Jr., Jessica Henwick, Kate Hudson, Dave Bautista) have a motive to kill him. The Glass Onion of the title, by the way, relates in several ways: the Beatles song that plays on the soundtrack, the literal design of the billionaire’s home, and the more philosophical concept about how sometimes things that initially appear to have multiple layers of depth can actually be unexpectedly hollow.

Like the score for the first film, the score for Glass Onion is by the talented composer and multi-instrumentalist, and the director’s cousin, Nathan Johnson. With the exception of the Star Wars film The Last Jedi Nathan has scored all of Rian’s previous films, and was considered one of the most promising up-and-coming composers in Hollywood after the release of Looper in 2012, when he won the IFMCA Award for Breakthrough Composer. Since then, Nathan has scored a handful of well-received films, including Don Jon in 2013, Kill the Messenger in 2014, and Nightmare Alley in 2021, where he was a late replacement for Alexandre Desplat. For a while Johnson also drifted into other artistic endeavors including directing music videos, producing short films and indie features, live performances, and graphic design, often in collaboration with his multi-media art group The Cinematic Underground, but the quality of his recent work is such that I’m very glad he is making more frequent returns to film music.

Whereas the original Knives Out score was an old fashioned, highly classical work that at times played more like a concerto for strings than a traditional film score, Glass Onion is much lusher and more boldly symphonic. Some of the textural ideas from the first film – notably the prominent use of a string quartet (in this case the Tippet Quartet, comprising John Mills, Jeremy Isaac, Lydia Lowndes-Northcott, and Bozidar Vukotic) and a harpsichord, performed by Iain Farrington – return in the sequel, but almost all the thematic ideas are new. Johnson was on set with his cousin while the film was being shot, which meant that he and Rian worked solidly on the score for almost two years, refining its ideas, and crafting the sound. In an interview with Jim Hemphill for Indiewire, Johnson revealed that his jumping off point in terms of style was Nino Rota’s score for the 1978 version of Death on the Nile, and he wanted to recapture as much of that European opulence as he could.

Theme-wise, there is an overarching theme for the film as a whole, the “Theme from Glass Onion,” but then afterwards the thematic content is intentionally confusing and ambiguous, reflecting the whodunnit concept of the film, and the changing focus of who the killer or killers could be. There is a theme for Janelle Monáe’s character Andi, which Johnson describes as “mysterious yet romantic … a multifaceted theme that allows us to read different things into it throughout the movie, depending on the context of what’s happening at that time in the story.” He explains that the theme is “anchored around a repeating piano arpeggio that subtly but clearly conveys the complexity of Andi’s motivations and pain, even before the audience knows any of the details of her life.”

The other major recurring theme is the theme for The Disruptors, which is the name that Norton’s character Miles Bron gives collectively to his friends, Connecticut governor Claire Debella (Hahn), data scientist Lionel Toussaint (Odom), supermodel and fashion designer Birdie Jay (Hudson), and wannabe men’s rights activist and online agitator Duke Cody (Bautista). Johnson says that the Disruptors Theme “repeats with different instruments in the orchestra depending on which character is the focus of any given scene, and often provides a counterpoint to the action rather than underlining it”. Johnson further explains that, with that theme, he was intentionally trying to subvert things, and play around with the idea one character stealing another character’s theme, which is clever especially when so many plot strands, motivations, and relationships are initially hidden, before gradually being revealed throughout the movie.

Interestingly Benoit Blanc himself doesn’t have a personal theme – he didn’t in Knives Out either – which is perhaps a little unexpected considering that no-one has ever shied away from writing themes for Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, or Sherlock Holmes. My thinking about this is that Johnson & Johnson want the focus of the story to be on the murder and the suspects rather than on Blanc himself, because we don’t actually find out much about Blanc as a person throughout either film (it’s revealed here that he has a same sex partner, played in a brilliant cameo by Hugh Grant, but nothing else about his past – a literal blank). If that is the case, then I understand the intellectual idea, but if this is to become a long-running franchise, then not having a recurring theme for the only character that links each film might be a problem going forward.

The main theme appears in the opening cue, “Theme from Glass Onion,” initially as a sparkling harpsichord solo, before embracing the full orchestra as it develops. There’s a wonderfully sweeping, vivacious, elegant sound to it; I love the Alfred Newman-esque slur and vibrato in the strings, and the way that the vibrato then bounces off and around the clear, bright, brass fanfare element of the theme. There’s a superb moment in the film where the camera pans around the yacht taking the guests to Bron’s island, and Johnson’s theme explodes in majestic, panoramic glory – a real goose bump moment.

The main theme appears frequently throughout the score, often in moments relating to puzzles, mysteries, and Blanc’s moments of epiphany and deduction. The statement in “The Puzzle Box” is playful, and again features a prominent harpsichord element. In “Blanc’s Plan” the theme has a more forthright and determined attitude, and then in “Motive & Opportunity” the theme becomes actually quite antagonistic and aggressive, with churning string figures, danse macabre-style violin expressions, snare drum rolls, and more harpsichords.

Andi’s Theme is introduced in the cue of the same name, and is just as Johnson describes it; moody, elegant, a little sad, and with perhaps a little touch of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata in the structure. The first version of the Disruptors Theme appears in “Ms. Birdie Jay,” arranged for whimsical pianos, and then continues on later in cues like “The Infraction Point,” the quirky “Dinner Is Served” where the melody often switches to woodwinds, and the similarly idiosyncratic “This Is Not a Game”. Elsewhere there’s lots of intrigue mixed with an air of gentle charm and occasionally light comedy – tinkling pianos, lilting strings, pretty woodwind accents. The increased use of percussion in “An Anonymous Invitation” gives the music an exotic vibe that I especially like.

The much more intense and dramatic sequence comprising “The Scene of the Crime,” “Trapped,” “Lights Out,” and “Time to Finish This” starts out by giving a particular character death scene some definitely un-comedic gravitas, as well as offering some interesting plot context when it reprises Andi’s Theme in the second half of the first cue. Towards the end of the “Lights Out” cue Johnson has some great fun playing around with thriller tropes, including con legno hits on his violins, slithering and squealing notes, and moments of gothic darkness. Then in “Time to Finish This” Andi’s piano theme comes back again with more than a hint of tragedy in the accompanying strings.

As the score builds to its finale Johnson brings all three main themes – the Glass Onion theme, Andi’s theme, and the Disruptors theme – together in a superbly entertaining mélange, regularly switching the focus from one theme to another, and arranging them for a variety of interesting orchestrations that make heavy use of the string quartet, the harpsichord, and the piano. There are some wonderfully dark crescendos in “Perjury,” a sense of frantic intensity and breathless percussive energy in “Ransacking,” some virtuoso harpsichord playing in “A.B.,” some imposing statements of the main theme in the wonderful “The Center of the Onion,” and a final reprise of Andi’s theme in the quietly devastating “You’ve Got Nothing”.

The “Glass Onion String Quartet in Bb Minor” is vivacious and sparklingly energetic – music to smash things by! – and this style of volatile and dramatic classicism continues into the outstanding “Burnt,” before ending on a more downbeat tone in “Disruption” which presents that theme with a hint of low-key jazz. A final flash of the main theme in “Theme from Glass Onion Revisited” ends things on a melodic high.

I hope that, like the original Knives Out, Glass Onion is a commercial and critical success, for the selfish reason that I want Nathan Johnson to write more scores like this in the future. This is such a fun work, bringing the wonderfully lush sound of the classic Hollywood whodunit to modern audiences with elegance and panache. The three recurring themes are excellent, with the main Glass Onion theme receiving several memorable performances in context, and the way Johnson develops them is an interesting intellectual exercise. His use of the string quartet and the harpsichord links this film with its predecessor, and the whole thing has an unpretentious, celebratory tone that I enjoy immensely.

Buy the Glass Onion soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Theme from Glass Onion (1:53)
  • The Puzzle Box (2:12)
  • Andi’s Theme (2:00)
  • An Anonymous Invitation (1:48)
  • Ground Rules (0:37)
  • Ms. Birdie Jay (1:47)
  • The Infraction Point (1:12)
  • Dinner Is Served (1:30)
  • This Is Not a Game (1:53)
  • The Scene of the Crime (2:16)
  • Trapped (2:52)
  • Lights Out! (2:02)
  • Time to Finish This (2:05)
  • Blanc’s Plan (2:57)
  • Snoop (1:44)
  • Motive & Opportunity (1:13)
  • Something’s Off (1:18)
  • Perjury (3:51)
  • Ransacking (3:26)
  • A.B. (2:54)
  • The Center of the Onion (4:11)
  • Peeled Back (2:31)
  • You’ve Got Nothing (3:53)
  • Glass Onion String Quartet in Bb Minor (2:15)
  • Burnt (1:51)
  • Disruption (1:43)
  • Theme from Glass Onion Revisited (2:00)

Running Time: 60 minutes 08 seconds

Netflix Music (2022)

Music composed by Nathan Johnson. Conducted by Cliff Masterson. Orchestrations by Jeff Kryka. Featured musical soloists John Mills, Jeremy Isaac, Lydia Lowndes-Northcott, Bozidar Vukotic and Iain Farrington. Recorded and mixed by Peter Cobbin and Kirsty Whalley. Edited by Joseph Bonn. Album produced by Nathan Johnson.

  1. Marco Ludema
    December 28, 2022 at 3:58 am

    A great movie, a great soundtrack and a great review, though I somewhat disagree with the notion that Blanc doesn’t have a theme. Both in Knives Out and Glass Onion there are a few statements of what I think is a seven-note motif that could apply to either him or the overall mystery he finds himself in. Just my take, though.

  1. January 28, 2023 at 10:01 am

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