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Is Denis Villeneuve Radiohead's biggest fan around?

Music and film has long had a history of being a winning partnership. In fact, the relationship between acting and music goes right the way back to ancient times, with plays enacted to music in the amphitheatres of Greece and Rome. It seems that humanity has been aware of the emotive impact of audio-visual experiences for as long as ‘high culture’ has been around. One only has to note the vast number of iconic films that have equally as classic scores/soundtracks to heed that film and music’s relationship embodies that of yin and yang. You cannot have one without the other.

Auteurs such as Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick and Michael Mann have all been masters of putting music to film. In fact, the latter’s use of green and blue in 1986’s Manhunter, is diegetic to the utmost effect. This trademark is inherent to all of his films. Additionally, Hitchock and Kubrick can be regarded as the early western masters of the film world who understood the impact of music on augmenting a visual experience. Their work in the audio-visual realm is a dense topic of its own and that is a story for another day. 

There have been numerous occasions where music has been written specifically for films or where directors have established partnerships with composers for a string of film scores. Tim Burton’s repeated work with Danny Elfman has been instrumental in perfectly establishing his unique cinematic universe. Hans Zimmer‘s compositions for blockbusters by household names such as Christopher Nolan and Ridley Scott have matched the on-screen majesty with grandiose sonic ballasts.

Most famously of all, Steven Spielberg’s long-running partnership with John Williams has been nothing short of ground-breaking and career-defining. Williams himself has soundtracked some of the biggest blockbuster’s ever released such as Harry Potter and Star Wars, and these franchises would certainly not be the same without their iconic musical reference point.

Outside of the film, there exist countless musical acts whose music can be best described as cinematic. One would wager that the prime example of this is Radiohead. Having started out on their cinematic journey on their sophomore album The Bends in 1995, the band have continued to be sonic pioneers up until the present. Their music is so cinematic, they even touched upon this point on 1997’s OK Computer, with the unforgettable ‘Exit Music (For a Film)’.

The band have even struck up a relationship with Paul Thomas Anderson (PTA), one of the foremost contemporary auteur’s, and he has even filmed a couple of the band’s music videos. Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood has also returned the favour by penning the unforgettable soundtracks to a string of Anderson’s films, including There Will Be BloodInherent Vice and The Phantom Thread.

Owing to Radiohead’s signature grasp of all things cinematic, they have a huge fanbase. Within it, exists another esteemed director, Denis Villeneuve. The genius behind SicarioPrisoners and Polytechnique, Villeneuve has paved out his own striking visual style over the past two decades. He is also noted for the rare use of songs in his films, opting for more atmospheric, ambient textures.

However, on the most notable occasions of using songs, he has used Radiohead’s music. In his brilliant 2010 outing, Incendies, Villeneuve used not one but two Radiohead songs. ‘You and Whose Army?’ and ‘Like Spinning Plates’ from 2003’s Amnesiac. In fact, the opening scene of the film uses ‘You and Whose Army?’ to such a great effect that two are now inextricably linked. Critic David Ehrlich wrote that the film expertly “exploits Radiohead tracks for the multiplicity of their meaning, empowering the image by dislocating viewers from it”. Villeneuve even admitted that he had written the song specifically into the script of the Middle Eastern drama to make it clear to the viewer that it would “be a westerner’s point of view about this world”.

In 2011, Villeneuve revealed that Radiohead allowed the song’s to be used in the film, but getting them to agree wasn’t based on money, rather: “it was an appropriate film for the song.” This is as good of an example of Radiohead’s ethos as any. Villeneuve recalled getting Radiohead’s blessing: “It was a huge gift. I was waiting by the phone for two weeks to get an answer back from them. It was a beautiful moment when they called.”

This was not the only time the director used Radiohead in his films. In 2013 he used ‘Codex’ from 2011’s The King of Limbs in the background of the now-classic ending of thriller Prisoners. It was such a perfect partnership that it was if Radiohead had written the song specifically for the scene, featuring Jake Gyllenhaal’s morally ambiguous character cottoning on to the mysterious whistle.

It is clear that Dennis Villeneuve is Radiohead’s biggest fan in cinema, and not PTA as is widely thought. Villeneuve has used more Radiohead songs than any other in his films. Although, he hasn’t included them for a while now so it’s about time he revisits the English pioneers. Who knows, maybe we’ll even hear a little Radiohead snuck in his forthcoming Dune adaptation?

Listen to ‘Codex’, below.