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Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood was a truly frightening spectacle. A tale of abject, ruthless greed in the cold blooded harnessing of the American West, it is often described as Anderson’s - if not a standalone - masterpiece. Underpinning this gruesome film was one of the most interesting and terrifying soundtracks in recent film history. Composed by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, its presence was a constant disquiet throughout the film, which combined with Daniel Day Lewis and Paul Dano’s unsettling performances to turned the film from a good one into a bloody classic.
It seems no surprise then that Anderson would choose Greenwood to compose another soundtrack. The new film, entitled The Master, is a tale of a lonely post-WW2 GI (Joaquin Phoenix) who becomes an avid follower of Phillip Seymour Hoffman's ‘philosopher’/cult-leader.
America, at the time the film was set, was in a state of contradiction. On the one hand, the victory in Europe and Japan brought a sense of pride, reinforced by the USA’s prosperity and its emergence as a world superpower. But underpinning this was a deep sense of paranoia towards the rapid spread of communism and the desire to contain this swell. On this masterfully composed and aptly compiled soundtrack, Greenwood has captured the conflicting notions of safety, prosperity, paranoia and discord prevalent in post-WW2 America, as well as the apparent, but false, safety found in religion and cults.
In parts contemporary Forties music (the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Jo Stafford) and in others Greenwood’s own compositions, the collection is a strange one, with calming piano and big band numbers interspersed with abrupt, jagged and frenetic classical pieces. Although not as overtly harrowing and remorseless as the There Will Be Blood soundtrack, a feeling of sadness and melancholy prevails throughout.
Opener ‘Overtones’ sets the scene. The strings ebb and flow with both beauty and dissonance. The subsequent mysterious woodwind tinkering on ‘Time Hole’ also shows the audience that this film - or soundtrack, for that matter - is not going to be an easy ride, with a strange seagull noise adding further intrigue to this unique composition. Elsewhere, ‘Able-Bodied Seamen’ bridges the gap between the musical realm of Greenwood’s dayjob and early twentieth century classical and minimalist compositions. With overlapping motifs, unsettling voiceovers and unhinged percussion, this track is truly a marvel.
If Greenwood’s own compositions remind the audience of the film’s themes and purpose, then the well chosen standards here reflect its setting. Romantic and serene, songs such as Ella Fitzgerald’s beautiful yet lyrically tumultuous ‘Get Thee Behind Me Satan’ Jo Stafford’s ‘No Other Love’ and Madison Beaty’s fragile, innocent a capella ‘Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else But Me)’, show both sides of the era, as well as the protagonist’s own conflicts, with remarkable aptitude; they appear as a well chosen, well-earned respite from the melancholy of Greenwood’s pieces, whilst still retaining relevance to the soundtrack; and within it, their sheer calm and beauty also manage to hit a nerve.
He’s always been a bit of a clever-clogs, and yet again Jonny Greenwood has excelled himself, repaying Anderson’s commission with an excellent work. Those expecting a Radiohead-like album may be disappointed, but many aspects of what make them a great band are firmly in place here; cinematic and experimental, it is a very much a work of their guitarist. With rave reviews in Venice, The Master will undoubtedly earn its share of awards, and, if this soundtrack is anything to go by, it deserves to.