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ALBUM REVIEW: JONNY GREENWOOD’S ‘PHANTOM THREAD’

★★★★★

“It oozes spellbinding beauty.”

Jonny Greenwood’s soundtrack to Phantom Thread marks his fourth collaboration with the director Paul Thomas Anderson. And what a pair these two make. Both are in full control of their voice and craft. Indeed, Greenwood has established himself as the most sought after film composer in the industry with his discordant and exploratory compositions that are sometimes foreboding, sometimes tragic, but are nonetheless always alien-like. It is this mixture of aurally knowing and not knowing what the sound is and what it is trying to conjure, which has made Greenwood such a talent. Equally, Anderson is a unique filmmaker, with films such as the idiosyncratic The Master and the postmodern noir Inherent Vice, which are so audacious and different that they make you wonder if your encountering an elevated order of filmmaking.

Oddly (and may I say stupidly), neither of them have yet to receive an Oscar, with Greenwood strangely missing out on even a nomination for his past scores – a fact that still baffles me to this day. Although sadly I don’t believe Anderson will take any Oscars this year (Phantom Thread is apparently too reserved and intricate for Oscar voters), Greenwood’s new score is sure to have a foot in. It oozes spellbinding beauty.

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Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis pictured in 2007. Phantom Thread is Day-Lewis’s last film before retirement.

The film itself is set in 1950s Britain and follows Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis), a dressmaker who falls in love with a hotel waitress called Alma (Vicky Krieps). The film’s post-war setting was obviously a source of inspiration for Greenwood, who in a recent interview with Variety explained that he talked with Anderson “about ‘50s music, what was popularly heard then as well as what was being written and recorded […] Nelson Riddle and Glenn Gould’s Bach recordings were the main references. I was interested in the kind of jazz records that toyed with incorporating big string sections, Ben Webster made some good ones, and focus on what the strings were doing rather than the jazz musicians themselves.”

By looking beneath the surface of 50s jazz music, Greenwood has created score of 18 tracks that has flourishes of Debussy (‘Alma’) and flairs of Oscar Peterson (‘I’ll Follow Tomorrow’). It is the longest score from Greenwood to date, and reflects how it occupies nearly 80 per cent of the film’s running time. Different to the peculiar scores of the past that have often evoked the instability of the landscape and the character’s state of mind (There Will Be Blood), the score of Phantom Thread seems to tread steadier, dare I say it, more conventional ground. As you listen to it, you can just see the dreamy spires of Old Hollywood Romance. Who would have thought that Jonny Greenwood, the monosyllabic guitarist from Radiohead, is a secret Romantic?

Britain’s melancholic landscapes is captured in a heightened sense within the opening track ‘Phantom Thread I’ – a sublime, romantic piece of music that reminds me very much of Elmer Bernstein’s score from Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence (which happens to also feature Daniel Day-Lewis).  It begins with a crescendo of elevated strings that are gradually accompanied by deeper sounding cellos and violas, creating a melancholic undertone that possibly establishes the Woodcock’s state of mind that the film opens with. ‘The Hem’ is a track that we were introduced to in the trailer. It moves from piano to strings, in and out, one to the other, like a sewing thread through a piece of material. This back and forth action creates an ominous tone that hangs in the background. The piano reinforces this menace with its high notes that softly ring out behind the strings, which could possibly reflect the ‘phantom’ that lurks within the film’s title. It’s a wonderful piece of music and I can just imagine an Anderson-like, long-tracking shot as it plays.

Of all the tracks, ‘Barbara Rose’ is probably the most foreboding of the album. The tension is formed through the intricate finger-picking staccatos and the quarrelling mixture of strings. It strikes me as a song used in a very dramatic and dark moment, because it sounds very much like There Will Be Blood’s ‘Future Markets’, which was used in the most visually shocking part of Anderson’s 2007 epic. The best track of the album must go to ‘The House of Woodcock’. It features warm strings and a tranquil piano that court one another until both of them suddenly surrender and collapse into each others arms. It is achingly melodramatic like a shimmering silk dress.

VERDICT: The official soundtrack to Phantom Thread is Greenwood’s most beautiful to date. Although, not nearly as experimental as his past work, it grants its listener a journey through pain, happiness, conflict and love. What a sweeping and sublime record this is.

The film is released in the UK on 2nd February. Luckily, I have a ticket to see a live orchestral performance of the score alongside the screening of the film in London’s Southbank centre. I can not wait to see the how this dizzyingly spectacular score contemplates Anderson’s romantic vision. Keep an eye out for the film review!

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