Why the Revolutionary Score for “Phantom Thread” Should Win the Oscar — And Change How We Think of Music in Movies

“The music doesn’t just tell us what the world of the movie sounded like. It fully embodies it.”


I have seen Phantom Thread twice, and neither time felt much like going to the movies. I saw it once on a freezing evening at Alamo Drafthouse (in 70mm, as director Paul Thomas Anderson intended it to be seen), a theater in Brooklyn that has taken the trend line toward mixing food, alcohol, and cinema to its unlikely conclusion. There are big chairs and tables for two that make it feel as though you’re swaddled in a cozy corner of an intimate restaurant, the pleasant clanging of glasses (as opposed to the unpleasant scraping of Alma’s butter knife against toast in the film) an underscore to a private moment (you will leave with a restaurant-sized bill, too, with tickets costing almost $20 and flatbreads and tacos in the neighborhood of $15). The second time was also in Brooklyn but a million cultural miles away: on a rainy Saturday at BAM’s Howard Gilman Opera House, a stately 110-year-old stage that has hosted Philip Glass and Steve Reich. There I saw it with the Wordless Music Orchestra performing the film’s music, composed by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood and nominated for (and favored to win) this year’s Oscar for Best Original Score. The violin and piano players were suited and dressed up as though it was a night out at the symphony, because, in some ways, it was.

These two showings reflect how we think of film in 2018, when Netflix calls to us and keeps us on the couch by allowing us to watch any number of things without even having to put on our pants. We need a reason to step out of our houses, and we want films (expensive propositions in 2018) to be the kinds of cultural experiences that are that reason, like the exciting team sport of buying Black Panther for politics and for pleasure. There is one thing that unites the thrill of seeing Phantom Thread in differing but gussied-up ways — possibly more thrilling even than getting to see Daniel Day-Lewis and Lesley Manville out-fuss each other on grand screens — and that is the music, easily the best score of any movie last year and what I hope will be a touchstone of how directors think of music going forward.

Jonny Greenwood has worked on music with Paul Thomas Anderson before, first for the menacing sounds of There Will Be Blood and more recently for the stoner delight soundtrack of Inherent Vice. But Greenwood’s contribution to Phantom Thread is something different. The music, which rolls on throughout what feels like the entirety of the film, winds through every scene of the movie, crashing and crescendoing to tell the story as much as the screenplay does, as though each line was set to an underscore that enhances it. All in all, it plays for ninety minutes of screen time. “When I told [this to] Robert Ziegler, who conducted the score” — with music also from Robert Ames and the London Contemporary Orchestra; Ames performed with the Wordless Music Orchestra at the BAM showing — “he said, ‘That’s not a soundtrack, that’s a musical!’ ” Greenwood told Variety. Greenwood probably knows best how to describe his contribution, but I hear it less as a musical (the actors don’t sing, after all) and more like dinner theater, an elegant entertainment that is almost dreamlike to experience, as though the outside world freezes the moment the film begins and all that is left, in the pitch-black theater, is an all-encompassing and pleasant purgatory.

This effect is as powerful in conveying the story as anything, precisely because the movie is set in a context — the haute couture world of London in the 1950s — when the idea of a dignified night out wasn’t just a rare treat, when women regularly wore the kind of cosseted dresses that Day-Lewis’s designer character, Reynolds Woodcock, creates. If Anderson wanted us to experience the high stakes of high fashion in postwar England, there is no better way than by immersing us in Greenwood’s score, which, in its stylishness, demands us to sit up straight. Style matters in Phantom Thread, so much so that Reynolds pushes everything else aside in pursuit of it, and its music argues this point. In my normal Brooklyn uniform (a hoodie), I felt underdressed at both showings, particularly after noticing that Wordless’s conductor wore a tux for the BAM performance. Somewhere, Reynolds is smiling at him and scoffing at me.

The music is expressive and impressionistic, evoking the turn-of-the-twentieth-century work of Ravel and Debussy. Swells of strings give it a sense of drama; pointed and plucky piano, a sense of thrust and momentum. Only orchestral music like this could balance dread and prettiness so nimbly, which matches the essential thesis of the movie, that something can be beautiful and still possess an ugly dark side. The movie centers on unspoken tension between two people, a couple unable to always communicate, and so the music says what the characters can’t: As Greenwood discussed in an interview, instruments correspond to feelings (which the characters often have a tough time expressing themselves), like in a scene in which Reynold’s dead mother appears and the music becomes shriller, the viola player’s strain mirroring the character’s. “That was written around the sound of the viola playing in its highest register, and there’s just something about the sound of the viola hitting those high notes,” he says. “You can hear the player, who’s amazing, struggling slightly, and that’s a really nice human emotion to hear in music.”

Greenwood has said Bach was an influence, and surely Bernard Herrmann, who scored Hitchcock, looms large as well. But most of all I hear the lesser-known French composer Jean Constantin, who composed for Truffaut’s New Wave movies, including The 400 Blows, which has a soundtrack as fun and frantic as it is romantic. Like the movie (and life itself), Greenwood’s soundtrack, too, has ups and downs, lulls and sprints, happy times and sad ones.

It is a constant of our era that movies will be made to evoke times past: We live in the world of Mad Men and a million other films (Oscar bait, often) that are set in various decades of the twentieth century, with filmmakers taking great care to get the clothes and design and music of those moments correct for modern audiences. Only two of this year’s best picture nominees (Get Out and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) are set in present day, with the rest cycling through about sixty years: the 1940s (Darkest Hour and Dunkirk), the 1960s (The Shape of Water), the 1970s (The Post), the 1980s (Call Me by Your Name), and even the Y2K era (Lady Bird). It’s hard to say why as a culture we are so nostalgic, why, when the lights go down in a theater, we want so desperately to be transported out of our time and into a different one (considering how ugly and awful things can seem in the real world, I could wager a few guesses). Anderson himself is not very interested in the present moment. He’s brought us to the louche Los Angeles of the 1970s and the druggie Venice Beach of the hippie era, the rugged oil boom of the nineteenth century and a postwar moment of American reinvention, and each time, he’s given his movies a soundtrack to match.

Anderson filled Boogie Nights with disco pop and Inherent Vice with Neil Young, letting us hear what that the characters would’ve heard on their own radios. But his orchestral work with Greenwood, I would argue, is more effective: He has been inching toward this exacting symbiosis since his strong if more routine original scores for There Will Be Blood and The Master. Finally, with Phantom Thread, the music doesn’t just tell us what the world of the movie sounded like; it fully embodies it. You are there. Drinking red wine at a small table in the theater or watching it with live accompaniment, as silent film audiences often did in the earliest parts of the twentieth century, you will forget everything but the film in front of you. At the very least, in no small part thanks to the music, you’ll be glad you left Hulu at home for the evening.

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