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Jonny Greenwood: From Radiohead to Oscar Buzzed Spencer

By Ryan O’Toole

Photo: New Yorker - Source

Jonny Greenwood has felt like the busiest man in music for the past two decades. When he’s not the guitarist for Radiohead, he is writing experimental orchestral music and is an accomplished film composer. He’s inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and has been nominated for the Oscar for Best Original Score — an achievement shared with Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor and Talking Heads’ David Byrne. And in 2021, Jonny Greenwood shows no signs of slowing down. Earlier this year, Greenwood debuted music from a new band, The Smile, a project he started with Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke and Sons of Kemet drummer Tom Skinner. And this fall, Greenwood has three new film scores coming out: Spencer, The Power of the Dog, and Licorice Pizza. This will be a busy awards season for Greenwood, and hopefully, like Reznor and Byrne before him, he could finally win his Oscar for Best Original Score.


Jonny Greenwood is a classically trained musician, who, in the middle of earning his music degree, joined a band with his brother, Colin Greenwood, Thom Yorke, Ed O’Brien, and Philip Selway, then called On a Friday. On a Friday would later get a record deal and change their name to Radiohead, causing Greenwood to forgo his music degree to focus on the band. Greenwood was the lead guitarist for the group who first made it big in America with their single “Creep.” This song, along with their debut album, is a fairly straightforward grunge-inspired effort from a band who would only grow more experimental. These were still five guys in their early 20s, “many of whom had classical training or art school on their résumés” who were figuring out their sound.

With their subsequent albums like “OK Computer” and “Kid A,” Radiohead started to experiment with a new sound, shifting away from the five-piece garage band they had started and becoming the Radiohead that people are still drawn to to this day. Although “Creep” still stands as their most well-known track and their most conventional, the Radiohead that made “Creep” is not the same band that made “OK Computer.” This new era drew more from experimental electronic and dance music than grunge or rock, prioritizing rhythm over melody. Greenwood’s guitar became less integral to the sound the band was after, though his role only grew. He was always a multi-instrumentalist, even going back to his training, and took up other instruments in this time to try to piece together the abstract notions Yorke was trying to describe. Alex Pappademas in the New York Times describes, “Radiohead has evolved into a band of arrangers. They start with an idea — usually some chords, a melody and some kind of a speed — and figure out how to orchestrate it. Recording a song by playing it together in a room has become just one of several options they can pursue while recording: a setting on the machine that is Radiohead.”

Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood

Photo: NME - Source

Orchestral Work

One of Greenwood’s biggest musical influences is Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki, whose compositions abandoned melody in favor of dense, dissonant tone clusters. He cites an “early-’90s concert of Penderecki’s music as a conversion experience; he’s obsessed with Penderecki the way a lot of people are obsessed with Radiohead.” Penderecki’s music resembles the kind of music found in horror movies — perhaps heightened by the fact that The Exorcist and The Shining both heavily use his compositions — and is made up of long, drawn-out string notes, creating a dense, uneasy atmosphere. It’s not exactly the kind of music you could hum to or could recall the melody of; it’s much more about the feeling it evokes over the aesthetic qualities of the music itself.

Greenwood has always been inspired by Penderecki’s music, with his dissonant walls of sound showing up in some of Radiohead’s music, like in the ascending melody of “Just” or the ending of “Climbing up the Wall.” Greenwood would later write his own classical pieces, directly inspired by Penderecki with “Popcorn Superhet Receiver '' and “48 Responses to Polymorphia,” — Polymorphia being a Penderecki composition Greenwood has always been drawn to. The former is a piece that Greenwood described as a “a chance to try out a long-held ambition to write something using large, Penderecki-style microtonal clusters,” that would later form the basis for his score in Paul Thomas Anderson’s, There Will Be Blood.

Film Scores

Although Greenwood had previously scored the documentary Bodysong in 2003 — a score that features “some classical stuff, some guitar, some oddball hip-hop beats, even some honking, sideways jazz” — There Will Be Blood marked Greenwood’s first narrative film score. Paul Thomas Anderson had always been an admirer of Greenwood’s work, which first attracted him to the idea of getting him to score one of his films. He recalls, “I knew there were arrangements that he had done within those Radiohead songs that obviously said he could do more than just play guitar in a band. And I thought, If the opportunity arises, I bet he could do something interesting on a film score. I was just sort of waiting for the opportunity.” Anderson’s and Greenwood’s collaboration has continued to this day, with Greenwood providing the score for Anderson’s last 5 films, including the upcoming Licorice Pizza, as well as Anderson directing multiple music videos for Radiohead, including “Daydreaming,” “The Numbers,” and “Present Tense.”

Paul Thomas Anderson and Jonny Greenwood

Photo: Esquire - Source

Greenwood is perhaps the best composer at evoking the interiority of its characters. While other composers, like the legendary John Williams, are trying to capture the tone or the feeling of the film itself — like the triumphant nature of his Star Wars theme or the evil theme for the shark in Jaws. These scores amplify the feeling that the movie is trying to evoke. Whereas Greenwood is tapped into the uneasiness and the troubled nature of the characters’ thoughts within the film. In his video on Jonny Greenwood, Jacob T. Swinney describes the score to Anderson’s The Master as, “Percussive and combative and erratic. This track expertly communicates the essence of Freddie Quell. This is what he has become, a raw, unpredictable mess.”

Greenwood’s most Penderecki inspired scores were There Will Be Blood and The Master, and again, like he did in Radiohead, he completely reinvented himself, turning to a more conventional, film-noir inspired Inherent Vice score, fitting in between Anderson’s carefully curated mix of 60s and 70s songs, and his beautiful, spacious, orchestrations for Phantom Thread. Greenwood also started to spread his wings and work with other filmmakers in the decade following There Will Be Blood, including his work on Norwegian Wood and his two collaborations with Lynne Ramsay, We Need to Talk about Kevin and You Were Never Really Here, — the latter, a fantastic exploration of pulsing electronic music, that, similar to The Master, explores Joaquin Phoenix’s character’s interiority and troubled nature.

This year, Greenwood has three new scores coming out. The first one is in Pablo Larraín’s fable about Princess Diana, Spencer. And aside from Kristen Stewart’s turn as the Princess of Wales, Greenwood’s discombobulating music is also getting rave reviews from critics. The score is a perfect mirroring of Diana’s tumultuous inner conflict and pairs perfectly with Stewart’s portrayal of a woman in crisis. Greenwood has two more scores on the horizon, with Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, which, aside from Spencer, got the best reviews for any score premiering at fall festivals. He also reteams with Paul Thomas Anderson to make some new music for Licorice Pizza, although this will most be similar to Inherent Vice, a movie whose musicality is mostly made up from its 70s soundtrack. Either way, Greenwood remains one of the most exciting forces, not only in movies, but in music at large.


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