Ranking Jonny Greenwood’s film scores in order of greatness
Jonny Greenwood, the famed English musician and composer, built his imperious reputation as the lead guitarist and keyboardist of Radiohead but, as his musical maturity has expanded, so has his evolvement into the world of cinema. Raised in a family in which the members listened to Mozart and Simon and Garfunkel song covers in equal measure, Greenwood had an innate interest in music from a young age. After playing baroque music, he learned the viola and joined Thames Vale youth orchestra, and this largely impacted his growing taste in music. Having been the youngest and the last member to join his school band, ‘On a Friday’, which was later renamed ‘Radiohead’ in 1991, Greenwood hasn’t looked back. Following a massively successful stint in the years to come, Radiohead has sold more than 30 million albums worldwide and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of fame in 2019.
Following the success of the band, In 2003 Greenwood released his first solo work via Simon Pummell’s documentary Bodysong, incorporating guitar, jazz and classical music, which caught Paul Thomas Anderson’s attention. After he was roped in to compose a film score for Anderson’s 2007 success There Will Be Blood, Greenwood received global appreciation; his work was described as “a sonic explosion that reinvented what film music could be”, while Hans Zimmer claimed that the “recklessly, crazily beautiful” soundtrack “stood out to him”.
Building a close working relationship with director Anderson, Greenwood has been full steam ahead with his creative expansion, bagging multiple film score composition projects in which he delivered unique and pioneering soundtracks. Although his work had been disqualified from the 80th Academy Awards for retaining previously used tracks, Greenwood got another nomination for his spectacular orchestral curation of music in Anderson’s Phantom Thread. Despite the recognition and accolades, Greenwood unflinchingly admitted to not being ecstatic at the thought of winning awards. “I get quite enough praise and recognition from my peers already,” he once commented.
On this maestro’s 49th birthday, we shall take a look at his film scores which are unique and hauntingly beautiful, composed of strangeness and love. Greenwood, who never shies away from constant experimentation, incorporates disparate genres to create soundtracks that fit respective film aesthetics. Stream the following soundtracks to get accustomed to Jonny Greenwood’s world of beautiful and poetic, mellifluous and transfixing film scores.
Jonny Greenwood’s film scores ranked from worst to best:
8. Bodysong (Simon Pummell, 2003)
Bodysong is a BAFTA-winning 78-minute long documentary which chronicles human life, from birth to death using images and footage taken from all around the world as well as the last 100 years of cinema. According to Hollywood director Paul Thomas Anderson, the film, with its “wonderful collection” of “pictures and music”, sent him into a “trance”. He further described it as a “moving, scary and hypnotic potpourri of images and an experience that gets more lucid the more you watch”. Comprising thirteen original compositions, Greenwood’s ambient and avant-garde film score cuts into the collection of portraits and reels showcasing this epic journey; the shimmer of strings and piano, along with the occasional acoustic guitar interludes, complements the mythical narrative portrayed in the documentary.
Greenwood’s compositions were spot-on with respect to the vivid imagery of the documentary. A born rebel, he wanted to go against the gradient and experiment with new ideas, some of which comprised delving deep into the “soundscapes of extinct languages”. Greenwood deftly combines disparate styles (classical, electronic, jazz and experimental), forming an unusual concoction of music that “moves from excitement to something oppressive”. His ingenious ideas helped the documentary seem more compelling where music guides the art of story-telling.
7. Junun (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2015)
Junun documented Jonny greenwood’s incredible collaboration with Indian by Israeli composer, Shye Ben-Tzur, and the Rajasthan Express, an Indian ensemble of nineteen members. Greenwood’s rhythmic contribution via guitar, drums, bass, keyboard and more added beats and a hint of jazz to the “Middle Eastern music”. The multilingual lyrics and nuanced soundtrack help the Eastern and Western music to transcend their limitations and converge with each other, producing a musical melancholy.
Greenwood, in an interview with Rolling Stone, revealed, “There were similarities: In my head, it was a little like being the bass player – guitarist in a good Seventies funk band, like an Indian version of the JB’s,” he said, before adding: “That stuff doesn’t change chords much either and in fact has a similar ecstatic mood”.
In accordance with his request, Greenwood was granted a “supportive role” instead of a “soloistic” one. Given the masterful work the audience has witnessed in the last three collaborations, Greenwood is phenomenal yet is let down by Anderson’s lack of personality and innovation in the project.
6. Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2014)
Joaquin Phoenix plays a flimsy, stoner 1970s detective, in this dark comedy, who sets out on a quest to investigate the disappearance of an ex-girlfriend and her new wealthy lover. Incorporating his usual musical genius, Greenwood whips out a stormy guitar with brooding Hermann-esque strings which reflect classic ’60s pop. In what is his third collaboration with Anderson, Jonny’s command over his masterful composition delivers a nostalgic and moody tone that aids the narrative flow.
Jonny Greenwood admitted that the soundtrack had to be inherently romantic as it had a “weird pitch to it: very amusing, full of fantastic grotesquery and jokes, but not just a joke”. Greenwood is, according to Anderson “the first viewer” and his orchestral ideas coupled with an experimental genius help him curate extraordinary pieces when just left “to his own devices”.
5. We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay, 2011)
Tilda Swinton plays the horrified mother who is forced to deal with her sociopathic son Kevin’s inclination towards defiance, darkness, violence and murder. Greenwood curated eighteen tracks which were intense enough to portray the volatility, ominously foreshadowing the horrific climax of the movie. The underlying theme of the conflict between nature and nurture is heightened by the dark score. Jonny was allegedly “terrified by it as he’s got children” according to Ramsay, who appreciated his ability to bring out the “layers and tones” of the moody psychological thriller.
Greenwood, himself, was thrilled despite the severity of the subject matter, as it was “a good chance to play with new instruments and get new players in,” he said, before adding: “We used this harpist called Jean Kelly who plays harp strung with metal strings, so it sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard. It’s wonderful”.
4. Norwegian Wood (Tran Anh Hung, 2010)
The period piece which chronicles the political and sexual revolutions of a particular time is adapted from Haruki Murakami’s popular novel of the same name, with underlying themes of love, loss and heartache. Greenwood’s composition is once again an incongruous conglomeration of Bach and Brahms’ richness coupled with acoustic guitar, inspired by his treasured Penderecki.
The film used both Greenwood and a German Band, Can’s composition which had a classic 1960s-70s vibe. Jonny’s composition is sympathetic yet overwhelming which renders extra depth to the ambience of the film. Having seen “a few clips of how he was filming it and reading the script and eventually reading the book”. Greenwood prepared his soundtrack which is a splendid addition to his flourishing career as a film composer. In accordance with what Hung liked, the soundtrack “confirms the emotions and makes them stronger, or more lyrical”. Hung was also quoted saying how he wanted to use the same piece in different scenes to create a certain growing depth over the course of the movie.
3. The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2013)
Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell is a war veteran who struggles to adapt to the new post-war society. He finds ultimate solace in ‘The Cause’ which marks the rise of the Church of Scientology. After a successful stint in Anderson’s 2007 movie, Greenwood was roped in to compose the film score yet again. He lives up to his genius with a tense, rich soundtrack accompanied by ragged and frenzied classical pieces which harvest a sense of paranoia, ambiguity and moral degradation of the society as well as Phoenix’s character.
Greenwood’s love for writing orchestra is evident in the film score. Anderson, who never fails to be enthralled by Jonny’s marvellous compositions, could not emphasize enough on how “wildly different and terrific” the latter was. He was quoted saying, “That’s kind of him in a nutshell: ‘No, no. I really can’t. I don’t know how to do this.’ And then you get this huge platter of stuff.”
2. There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)
Daniel Day-Lewis plays the role of a ruthless and mercenary oilman who strives relentlessly and stops at nothing to become the most influential oil mogul. Greenwood gifted his fan and movie director, Paul Thomas Anderson a ninety-minute soundtrack, of which about thirty-three minutes made its way into the final cut. Greenwood was inspired by the Penderecki’s oeuvre; the music was harrowing and unabashedly remorseless to its core in accordance with the accompanying scenes.
Greenwood had a “very easy ride with the director because he’s enormously enthusiastic with music and likes to have it prominently in his films”. Anderson on the other hand was fascinated by Greenwood’s novel ideas and, with bated breath, had been “waiting for the opportunity”. Although outstanding and widely acclaimed, the film score was ruled ineligible as Greenwood had used some of his pre-existing original scores (from ‘Popcorn Superhet Receiver’ and ‘Convergence’).
With regard to his approach, Entertainment Weekly quoted Greenwood saying, “I think it was about not necessarily just making period music, which very traditionally you would do. But because they were traditional orchestral sounds, I suppose that’s what we hoped was a little unsettling, even though you know all the sounds you’re hearing are coming from very old technology. You can just do things with the classical orchestra that do unsettle you, that are sort of slightly wrong, that have some kind of undercurrent that’s slightly sinister”.
1. Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2017)
Daniel Day-Lewis’ final role before his retirement as the obsessive fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock lives a meticulous, well-planned life. However, on meeting his new muse and lover, Alma, his life changes drastically. A lush and poignant tale centred on toxic masculinity, Greenwood’s subtle and incredible tracks are “rich and gorgeous, elegant because of its exacting nature, an aesthetic that suits the film to a T”.
Paul Thomas Anderson was giddy with pride at Greenwood’s masterful creation. He was quoted saying: “[The score] is more than we have ever needed [from him] before…I would just sort of crack a whip that said, more romantic, more romantic, more romantic.”
The film is strange; Greenwood’s soundtracks comprise the morbid cry of the violins coupled with an eerie and hollow dance of string quartets and woodwinds. Inspired by Nelson Riddle and Glenn Gould’s Bach recording, Jonny Greenwood’s masterpiece won him a nomination at the Academy Awards; a non-Radiohead masterpiece that aids his burgeoning reputation.