Composer: Jonny Greenwood
Suggested Retail Price: $ 14.99
By: DANIEL SCHWEIGER
No matter how great a score is, it can be said that you’ve heard it all before, especially when you listen to a few hundred soundtracks a year (with at least half of them accompanying an actual film). No matter how inventive the music might be, it usually falls under a given genre – whether it’s big orchestral action, twangy indie scoring or lush string romance. So when you hear something as audaciously new as There Will Be Blood, it’s a listening experience akin to coming across an oil gusher in a movie theater – the kind that blows your seat (and ears) to the ceiling with the sheer, often-insane beauty of what you’re hearing.
But then, maybe only a guy with seemingly zero experience in the film scoring arena could pull off something with the originality that Blood spurts in spades. And here it’s Jonny Greenwood, a member of the alt. techno group Radiohead, whose pulsating trance rhythms are about the furthest thing you can imagine from that neo-classical string quartet sound that you might be able to classify There Will Be Blood under.
Yet perhaps there’s no surprise when you consider that this is a soundtrack for a director-writer who’s never been interested in convention, much less scoring his films “normally.” And more than any other experimental auteur, the soundtracks for Anderson’s films seem to come as much from the filmmaker as his given composer. Each has music that almost defies listenability, its pitch, or repetition coming across like beautiful nails on a chalkboard. Other cues sound like rhythmic clatter. And then when you’re expecting nothing but an exercise in musical modernism, some beautiful, simple melody will arrive to bowl you over.
Anderson first cried “Eureka!” when he discovered Michael Penn, who created the dark synth underbelly of Hard Eight and the creepy calliope music of Boogie Nights. Then Anderson unleashed alt. rocker Jon Brion with the hypnotically endless orchestral runs of Magnolia and the helter-skelter romance of Punch-Drunk Love. Now with There Will Be Blood, Anderson’s iconoclastic sensibilities are as sharp as ever in getting Jonny Greenwood, whose only other movie work for the documentary Body Song would hardly qualify as score at all – let alone a composer capable of scoring an epic about a turn-of-the-century oil baron.
But as usual, P.T. Anderson couldn’t be more right, as Greenwood shows he can do orchestra with the same innovative quality that he approaches Radiohead’s trance-rock with. But here, the emotional power of what would normally be a hundred piece symphony is conveyed through far simpler means, its sound often barely above a string quartet’s. For while There Will Be Blood sets out as a Giant-like look at an ornery prospector, it’s vast scope soon turns inwards towards his seemingly irredeemable soul. And it’s a sad, angry place indeed. Yet it’s one that harbors a soul, no matter how desperately he tries to kill it.
Right from the first cue “Open Spaces,” Greenwood gets across an off-kilter rural quality through high-pitched sustains. And it’s a minimal idea he keeps developing, chugging like an oil derrick in “Future Markets” and “Proven Lands,” or becoming the sad, thematic repetition of “Prospectors Arrive.” Other pieces like “Henry Plainview” and “There Will Be Blood” pack the string dissonance of Gyorgy Ligeti as they agonizingly track the character’s discovery of black gold. Whereas an equally brilliant score like Carter Burwell’s The Hudsucker Proxy conveyed the industrial age’s go-get ‘em quality through furiously energetic orchestrations, Greenwood conveys oil’s transformative impact on Blood’s dust-bitten land with a somber, meditative quality, especially in the bleak, Arvo Part-like string sorrow of “HW/ Hope of the New Fields.”
They say that no man is an island, but the “protagonist” of Blood is a universe unto himself. For all the money in the world won’t heal this anti-hero, whose bleak journey to luxury is full of nothing but grief and betrayal, a poetic loss which Greenwood conveys with a simple instrumental wallop. For nothing gets a wounded soul across like a piano, a few violins or a moody synth. And where most composers would feel some need to play to what’s happening onscreen, Greenwood’s score is all about the inner picture instead of the outer one. He gets inside a self-loathing character without thinking of the conventional niceties that film scoring’s supposed to give us. And like P.T Anderson’s best soundtracks, Greenwood achieves a musical f-you wallop that grabs our attention, making the audience wonder just what the hell they’re listening to. Yet where Penn and Brion achieved these moments with often grating results, Greenwood’s approach is entrancing rather than sonically irritating.
As much as we ultimately want Blood’s tycoon to have some moment of Jimmy Stewart-like revelation about the inner goodness that’s always been waiting to be unleashed, neither Anderson’s film or Greenwood’s score is going to give it to us. What they do offer is the kind of gorgeous, aching sadness that offers its own transformative power. And as the violin’s achingly sad theme finished the album and film out with “Prospector’s Quartet,” we feel that Anderson and Greenwood have taken us on a journey into sound that’s truly new for film scoring.
Love it or be dismayed by it, There Will Be Blood offers a major discovery in the talents of Jonny Greenwood. And in that respect, there’s no musical prospector like P.T. Anderson. I can’t wait to hear what composing gusher he’ll strike next.
To buy the soundtrack for There Will Be Blood, click here