I’ve become quite fond of Jonny Greenwood’s score for You Were Never Really Here, his second composition for director Lynne Ramsay, following We Need to Talk About Kevin. Greenwood’s work is always compelling — consider his scores for Paul Thomas Anderson films like Phantom Thread and There Will Be Blood. But this time around it feels like Greenwood has really let loose.
Greenwood’s You Were Never Really Here cues are a profound exercise in nuance and character, defying the strictures of any single modality of film scoring. The longtime multi-instrumentalist and arranger for Radiohead effortlessly combines acoustic and organic instrumentation, such as percussion, guitars, and the immaculate contributions of the London Contemporary Orchestra and string player Ollie Coates, with the tight electronic music and odd time signatures of Radiohead.
“Greenwood’s You Were Never Really Here cues are a profound exercise in nuance and character.”
We end up with intimate and minimal synth-driven numbers seemingly out of the John Carpenter playbook sitting alongside spacious ruminations parlayed through the work of the LCO and Coates, who’s known for lending his experimental string talents to the likes of Mica Levi on her masterpiece score for Under the Skin.
The plot of You Were Never Really Here, which stars Joaquin Phoenix, seems to require the beautiful experimentation that Greenwood easily pulls off.
Based on a book by the inimitable Jonathan Ames (Bored to Death, My Less Than Secret Life), Ramsay’s fourth film stars Phoenix as Joe, a traumatized veteran who is unafraid of violence and on a mission: He tracks down missing girls for a living. When a job spins out of his control, Joe’s nightmares overwhelm him, as a conspiracy is uncovered that leads to what may be his death trip or his awakening. (I based the summary of this thriller of a film on the press release.)
To fully complement Ramsay’s film, while creating a record anyone can enjoy in its own right, Greenwood relies on his considerable talent to both internalize the story in his work, while infusing said story with more meaning.
There are moments like “Votto,” which features an ominous crescendo of dissonance buttressed by percussive hits and histrionic strings.
Then there are cues like “Nausea,” driven by a tight drum machine that unravels and go off-time, flailing about while the fuzzy monosynth arpeggiator does the heavy lifting of keeping mechanistic time. An unsettling array of bright synth leads and guitar noodling complete the recipe, all perfectly serving the cue’s title. I could see this one-minute, 50-second cue easily reworked into a four-minute Radiohead number.
Then we have what I’ll call the “two Tree cues” that open and close this original motion picture soundtrack. They seem to be the same or similar composition, just effectuated through different means.
The opener, “Tree Synthesisers” is a celestial majesty of notes that shine like glistening stars or scatter with a rainbow of reflectivity like a warm rain in the sun. Of course, one could also imagine that the legato synth pads are the wind and the kinetic arps are reactive leaves. At any rate, this is a truly beautiful cue.
“Tree Strings” features prominent orchestral machinations and beautiful guitar work, operating in an interplay slightly off-time from each other so as to recall the minimal compositions of Philip Glass or Steve Reich. As more parts pile on — more guitars, more strings, more everything — it’s clear that regardless of what is playing the notes for the “Tree” composition, the force of its beauty resonates.
Overall, I urge you, dear reader, to check out Greenwood’s soundtrack, which Lakeshore and Invada are co-releasing on Friday, March 9 (with CD and vinyl versions forthcoming). I also hope you’ll see the film, which Amazon Films will release in select theatres on April 6. (For what it’s worth, You Were Never Really Here premiered at Cannes to widespread acclaim, with Ramsay scoring the Best Screenplay award and Phoenix justifiably landing Best Actor.)