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Review: Jonny Greenwood’s Phantom Thread Soundtrack Is His Greatest Film Score Yet

There is music throughout much of Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest puzzling masterpiece Phantom Thread, which tells the story of a torrid and transformative romance between a former waitress (Vicky Krieps) and a willful celebrity dressmaker (Daniel Day-Lewis) in 1950s London. Franz Schubert’s lithe melodies and Claude Debussy’s celestial harmonies interject in Anderson’s intimate and lavish interior scenes; Oscar Peterson’s cocktail jazz conjures the exuberance of midcentury London nightlife; Hector Berlioz’s exuberant Romanticism provides some appropriate pomp and circumstance. But what’s most striking is the way the robust original score by Jonny Greenwood flows in and out of these variegated works, some of them at least a century old. 

Greenwood’s new orchestral pieces for the film rank among the finest and most ambitious music the Radiohead-guitarist-turned-esteemed-composer has ever produced. He matches the eclecticism of Anderson’s playlist with a pastiche that draws from Beethovenian harmony, kinetic post-minimalism a la John Adams, and arch, jazz-influenced French modernism. The score also makes room for some of the squeaking and shrieking string-orchestra dissonance that feels wholly Greenwood-esque by this point in his career. Taken together, the music achieves an out-of-time quality while remaining redolent of Anderson’s period setting.

Greenwood’s sensibility as a composer has clarified itself throughout his various stylistic experiments, both in PTA’s films and in a respectable collection of independent concert orchestral works. The primary impetus in early scores like There Will Be Blood and The Master came from unrepentant 20th-century European experimentalists like Olivier Messiaen and Krzysztof Penderecki, and this penchant for unearthly atmospherics shines through in Phantom Thread. (It seems unlikely that Greenwood will ever shake it off entirely; he is a member of Radiohead, after all.) But the Phantom Thread soundtrack also highlights his flair for writing sticky melodies, here in a strictly pre-rock’n’roll context, and his appreciation for more traditional classical music idioms.

Some fans who seek out the soundtrack may do so just so they can hear the movie’s primary theme again. It features a stark Chopin-like keyboard melody culminating with a rhythm that recalls a marble being dropped on a table. Its rosier complement, and the film’s most ubiquitous piece, is the sunny “House of Woodcock,” a series of florid orchestral swells which seem to evoke the light streaming in through the dressmaker’s tall windows. In the film, the theme and its variants generally signify some new awakening in the relationship between the dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock and the former waitress Alma, or the renewed period of creativity that follows. Greenwood’s music can be the salve after a particularly brutal breakfast têteà-tête, or it can underscore the rigid splendor of the Woodcock lifestyle—the patterns and aesthetic conventions that Reynolds can’t bear having disrupted. Some of the shimmering piano-heavy cues recall the decadent score for Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name, 2017’s other greatest film about wealthy people in Europe.

Anderson’s The Master ran on paint thinner fumes and lust. There Will Be Blood was driven by similar, distinctly American incentives–greed and power, largely–despite the fact that its music often sounded Eastern European. Phantom Thread is very British: full of glowering facial expressions, painfully pregnant silences, and repressed envy and fury. The characters’ various power trips play out through the mechanism of decorum, which is maintained at all times. When the savagery occasionally bubbles to the surface, it comes in unexpected flashes, and the score mirrors them. “Barbara Rose” is one of the soundtrack’s more dissonant moments, and resembles Greenwood’s previous work for PTA. It serves as herky-jerky entrance music for the alcoholic, tragi-comedic millionaire (Harriet Sansom Harris) who keeps the Woodcock house’s door open, forcing Reynolds to take time off from more edifying creative pursuits to make her dresses. Her presence introduces a newfound element of the grotesque into the film, and it doesn’t let up after that. Greenwood’s awkward stretches toward resolution and erratic pizzicato figures mirror the energy well. 

Phantom Thread is a haunted ballet for a man and woman, rather than two men, as in the case of both The Master and There Will Be Blood, or a cast of misfits and cartoonish double agents glimpsed through permanent weed goggles, as in Inherent Vice. Greenwood’s musical forms in Thread are fittingly less macho, more elliptical, less prescriptive. Themes do not build toward loud, smeared clusters, but intensify (see “Phantom Thread III,” a punishingly ominous recapitulation of the film’s main theme that sounds like something out of Mozart’s Requiem) and subside tastefully (the water-torturous plinks of “The Hem”). Greenwood’s previous PTA scores provided feral atmosphere first and foremost, or in Inherent Vice’s case, a convex take on classic Hollywood film noir incidental music. Phantom Thread’s score, on the other hand, feels like another main character or storytelling voice in the film. Greenwood’s abilities have never served one of Anderson’s films better, or proved so integral to its power.