When French composer Alexandre Desplat snagged his second Oscar for Best Original Score for his work in Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water on Sunday evening, music fans across the world were disappointed. Many believed that the coveted award belonged to Jonny Greenwood for his piano-and-strings-based score for Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread.
Sometimes discordant, sometimes lush, and always surprising, the music for the Daniel Day Lewis-starrer was the outlier among the contenders for the top award. Greenwood drew influences from pianist Glenn Gould’s Bach recordings and Ben Webster’s jazz records featuring lavish string sections, he told Variety in an interview. In comparison with Desplat’s non-risky and blandly pretty score, or fellow nominee’s Hans Zimmer’s bass-heavy, heart-thumping, electronic affair for Dunkirk, Greenwood’s score was magnificent in scope and ambition.
Through his solo projects as well as his involvement as the lead guitarist and keyboardist of the band Radiohead, Greenwood had a tremendous influence over contemporary popular music. He has been disrupting film score conventions since There Will Be Blood, his first collaboration with Anderson in 2007.
The Oscars rarely award the unconventional, especially when it comes to film scores. Notable exceptions in the last two decades are the awards for AR Rahman for Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire in 2009, and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for David Fincher’s The Social Network in 2011.
Yet, filmmakers and composers have been willing to move away from orchestra-driven symphonic melodies. There has been a proliferation of synth-heavy electronic scores in recent years that focus more on rhythm and texture than melody. Zimmer’s work with Christopher Nolan and Johann Johannsson’s work with Denis Villeneuve are two prominent examples.
Similarly, Greenwood redefines the possibilities of an orchestral score in Phantom Thread, relying on piano and string instruments without brass and percussion. But his experimental work was overlooked, perhaps in part because the movie, being commercially unsuccessful, was considered insignificant, unlike The Social Network or Slumdog Millionaire.
A crucial aspect of the Phantom Thread score is that it does not nudge viewers towards a certain emotion. House of Woodcock, which plays several times in the movie, begins with a few sublime piano notes. Then, after a hint of hesitation, when it is unclear if the song will lift or fade away, the melody blooms into a sea of strings and the piano buoyantly picks up.
This approach mirrors the film’s emotional landscape. The obsessive buttoned-up designer Reynolds (Daniel Day-Lewis) is getting ready for another day of attiring London’s elite in his apartment. The song plays in the background and its beauty complements the surrounding, but the little oddities early on in the track hint at something off-putting about the whole business.
The same notes are heard as Reynolds and his lover, Alma (Vicky Krieps), are walking on a hill. Alma talks about how loved she feels with Reynolds by her side. He in turn tells her that he had been looking for her his entire life. But something is not quite right about this happy moment, for Reynolds has already been established as a pompous and tortured artist. Even as the song’s sumptuous strings paint a picture of harmony, the ambivalent piano underlines the shaky foundation of their relationship.
This ability, of being celebratory one moment and ominous the next – and sometimes simultaneously – is the highlight of Greenwood’s score for Phantom Thread. In his interview with Variety, Greenwood explained how he used small and large orchestras to pull off this effect: “The smaller groups, and solo players, work like close-ups [and] not necessarily to accompany [a] visual, but rather, to focus your attention on and make you feel directly engaged with the characters. The bigger orchestral things often worked best for drawing you back to see the bigger situation.”
On the other hand, Desplat’s score for The Shape of Water infantilises the viewer. At every turn, it tells them how to react to each character and situation. The theme of Shape of Water, parts of which are used as motifs in other songs such as Elisa’s Theme, is melodious, but nothing one hasn’t heard before. There are snatches of Yann Tiersen’s Amelie score here, bits of John Williams’s music from ET: The Extra Terrestrial there. Every time it is played, the theme begs the audience to see the romance of the speech-impaired janitor, Elisa (Sally Hawkins) and the amphibious creature (Doug Jones) as irresistibly cute.
Take, for instance, the sequence in which the amphibian is introduced for the first time along with military man Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). The score handholds us to the realisation that Strickland is the antagonist and that the creature is the most important element of the scene. Or the time when Elisa and the captive amphibian have their first moment alone. Every change in Elisa’s emotions, from wonder to fear and the feeling of closeness, is emphasised by the score.
Desplat’s Oscar-winning score is ultimately as simplistic as The Shape of Water’s form and narrative. Without the accompaniment of the film’s visuals, it would not have made it into any playlist of movie scores.
Greenwood’s Phantom Thread score, on the other hand, is first-rate even as a standalone music album. It is the result of an idiosyncratic composer being left to his devices instead of being forced to kowtow to the director’s imagination.
Every viewing of Phantom Thread reveals something new about its characters just as the score leads to exciting discoveries. Phantom Thread is about the inexplicable and invisible cord between two people in a relationship. It sometimes binds them together, and at other times, cuts them without warning, through harsh words, unforeseen bursts of emotions, and acts of seeming cruelty.
Greenwood’s score too is unpredictable, moving, and ultimately, a complex piece of art meant for way more than short-lived Oscar glory.