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Soundtrack review: Phantom thread (Jonny Greenwood – 2018)

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Soundtrack review: Phantom thread (Jonny Greenwood – 2018)

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“Phantom Thread” is a 2017 American historical drama film written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, set in London’s couture world in the 1950s. It stars Daniel Day-Lewis, Lesley Manville, and Vicky Krieps. It is reportedly Day-Lewis’s last film role. Amid the glamour of London in the 1950s, renowned dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock and his sister Cyril dress members of the royal family, film stars, heiresses, socialites, debutantes, and dames with the distinctive style of The House of Woodcock. Women come and go through Woodcock’s life, providing the confirmed bachelor with inspiration and companionship, until he comes across Alma, a strong-willed young woman who soon becomes a fixture in his life as his muse and lover. He finds his carefully tailored life disrupted by love. Jonny Greenwood wrote the score.

Now among the musicians from my favourite bands growing up who crossed over to the film music world, Jonny Greenwood comes from the second highest ranked: Radiohead. Only Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross meant more to me 15-20 years ago so naturally any score by him – considering also, just like in the case of NIN, the intriguing fabric of Radiohead’s instrumental pieces. None of that really matters though as Greenwood’s film scoring style, unlike Reznor and Ross, goes in a completely different direction from his alternative music sound; the opening cue “Phantom thread I” is a piercing string based piece that has the elegance of 1950s London while also evoking, to me, the sound of suspense of 1970s Italy. I get a serious Ennio Morricone vibe from this opening cue and this speaks volumes of the impression Jonny Greenwood’s music instantly makes on me. I know it’s “only” a chamber orchestra piece but it opens a much vaster world for me as if it was the musical equivalent of the closet in Narnia.

After this surprising start Jonny starts breaking his puzzle into uneven pieces; “The hem” combines a neurotic string motif with other sounds, a clock ticking, a broken piano to create a cue that gives me the impression of frantic, chaotic thoughts, of a terrible mental agitation, of an obsession that breaks any train of thought. This is experimental music at its best, innovative and fascinating and it’s a cue like this that reminds me of Jonny Greenwood’s score from 10 years ago for another PT Anderson movie “There will be blood” where it was all about feverish and obsessed minds. The way the strings are played in the opening few cues of “Phantom thread” also make me think of a particular mind encased in a bit of OCD behaviour. There is order in the chaos of different orchestral motifs that are intertwined in this cue and I am all caught up in this musical web.

The composer makes sure the contrast between that frantic chaos and the appearance of the new element in the main character’s life, Alma, is obvious. Her theme is gentle and tender and cleverly played as a deconstructed, quieter version of his theme; the violin is there, the piano is there, but both barely touched this time, more caressed then played, mirroring a much calmer self. Her theme is an island of peace in a score that keeps me on the edge most of the time with cues that are written and played in a way that makes me question and change my mind about the way they make me feel; there’s always that question mark that sometimes appears in the middle of a cue and other times right at the end. John Greenwood is a wizard with both piano and violin as his cues play the hearts off both instruments, here softer, there harder, here tortured, there caressed but always with passion. I swear I recognise in the poignant piano motif from “Phantom thread II” traces of one of my favourite Radiohead songs, “Videotape” although it was Thom Yorke who was playing the piano on that one.

“Catch hold” might be my favourite cue from “Phantom thread” with the way a melodic piano motif blends with a strange string motif giving me the exact impression of standing on the seashore, watching the calm sea and the still sand just as a sudden, strong wind announces the storm I see coming towards me from over the sea. I am caught between something’s that soothes me and something that might throw me into the biggest turmoil, all in the same cue. Of course soon enough the composer pulls me from that seashore and throws me in the middle of a different storm, a symphonic one in “Phantom thread III”, a classical piece for the ages. The cues that bare the title of the movie are the backbone of the score and mark the evolution of the main character’s state of mind. This is as dramatic as orchestral music gets.

From strikingly, golden age like elegant to feverishly agitated, the music that Jonny Greenwood wrote for “Phantom thread” rattles me from beginning to end and pulls me inside a complex story with a complex character. There are moments when the loneliness of the cello soloist borders on insanity. It’s not often that I am drawn in so deeply by a composition as if I was part of the story; film music affects me in different ways and this particular score with the haunting and loud string motifs pierced me before placing firm hooks in those places and pulling me in all directions. I am left emotionally drained after such a score and this is one of the highest compliments I could pay a composer.

Cue rating: 100 / 100

Total minutes of excellence: 56 / 56

Album excellence: 100%

Highlights:
Phantom Thread I
The Hem
Sandalwood I
The Tailor of Fitzrovia
Alma
Boletus Felleus
Phantom Thread II
Catch Hold
Never Cursed
That’s As May Be
Phantom Thread III
I’ll Follow Tomorrow
House of Woodcock
Sandalwood II
Barbara Rose
Endless Superstition
Phantom Thread IV
For the Hungry Boy

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Mihnea Manduteanu

I have been listening to film music for 25 years and writing about it since 2014. I've written over 1000 reviews and I can't imagine myself doing anything else. I am also a member of IFMCA (International Film Music Critics Association).

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