Johann Johannsson’s Incredible ‘Mandy’ Soundtrack

Panos Cosmatos’s Mandy is a treasure — a stylistic and psychedelic revenge film starring a gonzo Nicolas Cage and an insane Linus Roache with a color palette drenched in degrading red and black textures. The score — composed by the late Jóhann Jóhannsson with guitar work by Stephen O’Malley of the group Sunn O))) and production by Randall Dunn — plays a major role in the realization of Cosmatos’s substantive, Satanic acid trip.

Jóhannsson and crew have done a brilliant job marrying his rich, moodscape sensibilities, as heard on films like Arrival and Sicario, with the principles and emotional center of metal-laden composition. The synth-driven score bleeds a thick, syrupy red with O’Malley’s dexterous guitar histrionics blackening the blood flow, all punctuated by gigantic drums and other organic instrumentation and addled with an unbridled sense of a loss of reality.

Without giving too much away, the film is set in 1983 and is about the aptly named Red (Cage) whose wife, Mandy (Andrea Louise Riseborough), is abducted and killed by cult leader Jeremiah Sand (Roache) and his followers. Red, left for dead, recovers and goes on a revenge spree. It is Cage and Roache in perhaps their finest roles — if only because of how invested they get in the off-the-rocker insanity of their characters’ circumstances. The former seems to have found the purest medium for expressing his vast and sometimes cartoonish emotional complexity and the latter embodies a sexualized, strung-out cultist so well you soon forget his straighter roles in shows like Law & Order and Homeland and in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins.

On his last score before his untimely death at 48 earlier this year, Jóhannsson helps perfect Cosmatos’s hallucinogenic world, making louder the loudest, most ridiculous mind-fucks and softening the film’s quietest, most sensitive moments. In many ways, Jóhannsson has made like Cage and Roache, becoming completely engulfed by his role in this film. The composer and his team do an amazing job of showing through music a core element of one of the film’s themes: The certain loss of humanity people can suffer in the face of extreme loss and trauma.

Take “Mandy Love Theme,” which embodies one of the film’s more tender moments. It’s an ethereal wash of atmospheric synths and sweet guitar melodies that swirl around in a chamber of serenity, moving about with supreme tenderness and care. There’s a wistful sensibility to this heartbreakingly beautiful cue, the melody of which is a recurring theme throughout the album. 

Contrast that with “Forging the Beast,” a dark, arp-driven cue into which Jóhannsson infuses alien monosynth blurbs and spectral synth leads that bubble up and burst amid O’Malley’s doom-laden and chunky riffage. It’s an intense and rewarding complement to an equally intense scene.

“Waste” is a standout cue for me, a molasses of darkness and supreme catharsis. A drum kit with an absolutely gigantic snare drives the arrangement, as haunting synth stabs and a demonic horn section reinforce the anticipatory nature of this slower than slower cue. All around us are atmospheric synthetic and organic instruments stuck to the rhythm section by strong tendrils, inducing a deep sense of foreboding and entrenchment. Red’s recurring theme creeps up here and elsewhere. 

As a whole — perhaps as a result of the effects applied in the mix —the Mandy score has a scuzzy, gritty tinge to it that recalls the films fuzzy, almost-VHS look. The score stands alone as an exceptional album, but it’s truly impressive just how inseparable every element is from the film.

Luckily, even if Mandy isn’t screening in your town, you’re able to buy it through the usual video-on-demand channels (and later Blu-ray). Although this film deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible, it really just deserves to be seen. So too the score: You should find a dark or dimly lit room (preferably with a red light) and listen to it in its entirety in one sitting. It would be stunning if it were just another Jóhannsson score, but the fact it’s for a Cosmatos film and it was one of his last makes it that much more meaningful. What a fitting conclusion to a fascinating life.

Mandy—Original Motion Picture Soundtrack was assembled posthumously in March 2018 with the help of co-producers Pepijn Caudron (AKA “Kreng”) and Yair Glotman. You can stream it now on Spotify. It’s also available in extraordinary vinyl form. The soundtrack is a joint-release of Invada Records and Lakeshore Records.

Mandy vinyl
‘Mandy’ soundtrack on vinyl. A beauty.

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