The Power of the Score: Discussing Jonny Greenwood’s Oscar-Nominated Music

Written by Brian Skutle
Find their work at http://www.sonic-cinema.com/

Film music can serve many functions in the film it exists in. It can comment on the action, though that’s more in the musical arena. It can set the stage for the film, like a great overture or opening title song. It can provide background accompaniment to the action. But most importantly, it must reflect the film emotionally. That’s not to say it has to provide the emotional anchor for the film, but it must add to the film’s ability to convey feelings.

At another point of my life, I wanted to be one of those film composers, helping the film to convey what it set out to do emotionally. I’ve done so for some short films, but even I’ll admit that, compared to people like the five composers nominated for Best Original Score this year, my work falls short. What resonated with me so much with film soundtracks was the idea that music could play an important part in the storytelling process, and in a variety of different ways. I often disagree with the Academy on their nominees in this category, and this year is no exception. That being said, they could not do better than singling out Jonny Greenwood’s score for Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog” with their votes this year.

Great film composers have come from every corner of the musical landscape, and when Greenwood entered the arena, rock musicians writing film scores had become a commonplace thing. The Radiohead lead guitarist and keyboardist, however, has departed more than most from his rock ideas. One can hear the throughline between Oingo Boingo and Danny Elfman’s scores, for instance, and certainly, there’s a lot of the experimental nature of Radiohead in Greenwood’s scores, but he also works in a simpler, more avant-garde style as a composer than many we’re used to hearing make the jump. That’s part of what made his acclaimed score for Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood” such a mesmerizing experience, and he’s continued to grow in that collaboration, and in others, he has had. As I re-listen to his score, his work for Campion feels like a culmination of those ideas and experiences.

“The Power of the Dog” is, in a lot of ways, a traditional Western; it’s in how Campion digs under the surface of the genre’s notions of masculinity, patriarchal dominance, and gender roles where it finds its potency. A lot of the musical ideas Greenwood presents in his score follow in that same genre tradition- the emphasis on strings, the detuned piano, mournful horns, the guitar are familiar musical sounds of the cinematic American west- but like his director, it’s the way he utilizes these in his execution that gives this score a feeling that rises above its genre. When a genre is as familiar in its tropes and ideas as this one, it sometimes takes outsiders to give us something new. Few works in the genre have had more to say about those tropes and ideas in the past half-century.

The soundtrack for “The Power of the Dog” has been in constant rotation with me since I had the chance to add it to my collection in November. How a score plays apart from its source film is certainly not all that matters when considering its greatness, but apart from watching the film on a constant loop, few prospects are better suited for understanding a score, how it flows, and what it does for our thoughts on the film after the fact. Does it conjure the images of the film in our memories? Do we find a way to think of it simply on its own terms? One of the complicated ideas when listening to film soundtracks are that they are created in support of another art form, so, if we don’t really think about the movie listening to it, does that mean it failed or was it just the best thing of the movie? With “The Power of the Dog,” one cannot help but think about the drama on-screen, as the brothers played by Benedict Cumberbatch and Jessie Plemons have their lives transformed by a widow and her son, played by Kirsten Dunst and Kodi Smit-McPhee. Some cues get us thinking most directly of on-screen events, but others simply serve to remind us of the film’s melancholic tone, how all four of these characters ache to be accepted- whether it’s for who they are (like Smit-McPhee’s Peter), or who they want to be (like Plemons’s George)-  or simply ache because of the turmoil they feel inside (like Cumberbatch’s Phil and Dunst’s Rose).

Listening to it on its own, we sense the chaotic nature of the collision of these four characters in Greenwood’s score. Listening to “25 Years” gives us a different feeling than “Requiem for Phil” or “Viola Quartet”; sometimes, it can be disorienting as the score changes in tone and energy. Then again, that’s been Greenwood’s musical philosophy in many of his soundtracks. Underneath it all, however, are the emotions Greenwood and Campion are trying to convey; while “25 Years” and “Viola Quartet,” for example, have radically different sounds, their approaches emotionally are the same- they capture the same ideas present in the film. The detuned piano of “Paper Flowers” is as reflective of the struggles of these characters as the haunted horns of “Best Friends.” Even a piece like “West,” which feels like the definitive thematic composition for the soundtrack, feels like a collision between an optimistic conclusion, and the sadness that makes up the heart of the movie.

The last time a western had this much to say about the genre and its archetypes was probably Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven.” I think the last time a score in the genre approached its narrative with such ambition was when Ennio Morricone unleashed his coyote howl for “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” I would love to see Campion’s film accomplish at least as much on Oscar night as Eastwood’s did; hopefully, voters feel the same about Greenwood’s score as I do, and award it accordingly.


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