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Soundtrack review: You were never really here (Jonny Greenwood – 2018)

Film scores

Soundtrack review: You were never really here (Jonny Greenwood – 2018)



“You Were Never Really Here” is a 2017 thriller film written and directed by Lynne Ramsay, based on the novella of the same name by Jonathan Ames. The film stars Joaquin Phoenix, Ekaterina Samsonov, Alex Manette, John Doman, and Judith Roberts. A traumatized veteran, unafraid of violence, tracks down missing girls for a living. When a job spins out of control, Joe’s nightmares overtake him as a conspiracy is uncovered leading to what may be his death trip or his awakening. Jonny Greenwood wrote the score. From the trailer the movie looked like a modern “Taxi driver” so I can’t wait to see it.

I am still under the influence of Greenwood’s previous score, the fantastic and intense “Phantom thread” which was one of the best scores of 2017 or is one of the best scores of 2018, depending on when you heard it. Of course when the title of the opening cue has the word “synthesisers” in it I am both intrigued and excited, partly because it’s like taking a peak behind the curtain of the magician when he includes clues like this in the title of the tracks. “Tree synthesisers” injects a double dose of nostalgia in me, first the obvious synth nostalgia and then the nostalgia for the instrumental parts of early Radiohead, before their sound got deeply experimental and strange. It is my kind of reflective, warm electronic cue and I just need to listen to it a few more times. I love the synth sound the most and Jonny Greenwood knows how to play it. I like this laid back, almost joyful opening cue which makes me think of the end of a day at the beach.

This isn’t a dreamy story though and its nightmarish essence starts manifesting itself in the second, dissonant cue “Sandy’s necklace” which takes the string heavy sound of “Phantom thread”, tears it into pieces and puts these pieces back together in the wrong order. Orchestral and industrial clash in this tortured cue that changes the mood of the score completely. Change and variation are the key words as the synth sound returns in “Nausea” but with a club like pace to match the title. There’s also a constant soft percussion motif in the background and I feel as if I am listening to the music of an old arcade computer game from 30 years ago. No matter what happens in this score though one thing remains the same: the neurotic and uncertain nature of the music, the hallucinatory sound effects and how fascinated I am with all of it. “Hammer and tape” for example is one of those cue that’s almost impossible to describe in words, you need to listen to it.

“You were never really here” it’s a weird, turbulent and psychotic score that falls more into the category of “Twin Peaks” with less melodies; the atmosphere is just as murky and chaotic, reality is hard to grasp and the music actually gives me the impression of an uncertain state of sanity. Jonny Greenwood is becoming the master of jumpy and neurotic film music but the beauty of it is that there is a method to his madness and in the sparse and violent way in which what I imagine is a mandolin like instrument is being tortured in a cue like “The hunt” I hear the suspense, the frantic pace, the thrill. Somehow the music mirrors exactly the sequence of emotions I associate with stalking. I just feel the adrenaline rushing to the point of explosion as the cue progresses. The pace and buildup are insane and suffocating and I turn the volume higher.

Jonny Greenwood wrote a neo noir score that sometimes, in the calmer synth periods, borrows something from the Cliff Martinez school of neo noir film scoring. The synth cues are simply perfect in their 80s shell and there’s even robotic like vocalising in the sublime “Dark streets” which sends me back to the pioneers of electronic music like Kraftwerk for example. Jonny Greenwood wrote the score that could serve as the musical equivalent of Alice’s drop through the rabbit hole; the music is strange, cues are agitated and feverish until an abrupt short circuit makes some of them collapse into total darkness and chaos and I am beyond fascinated because somehow it all makes sense to me. I hear a musician hitting the instruments and machines in a delirium like state, passionate and always searching for something and I want to explore more.

“You were never really here” is not a score for everyone. There is even a cue, “Votto”, that has periods of enough seconds when it goes silent, in between the torturing of strings and percussion and of the listeners for that matter. It’s an occasional torture I voluntarily subject myself to because I love experimental music, I love music that’s different and the composer does all this with proper instruments that are in no way played in the way they were meant to. Jonny Greenwood’s chaotic composition makes me write chaotically but I just admire and applaud the way in which he made regular musical instruments sound like weapons hitting, cutting or hacking. Beware though, this score is at times violent and aggressive both emotionally and sonically. I can’t wait to hear where Jonny will take his sound next because the texture he created for this one is a never before heard mix of barbed wire and linen.

Cue rating: 87 / 100

Total minutes of excellence: 22 / 41

Album excellence: 55%

Tree Synthesisers
Dark Streets
Dark Streets (Reprise)
Tree Strings

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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