Ed. note: It’s time for another installment of “VHS Or Beta?”, where Andy Beta looks at the music behind the movies–from preserved-by-Criterion classics to completely inane summer blockbusters. In this installment, he looks at the Jonny Greenwood-composed music that scores Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood:
Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood has more in common with Radiohead’s In Rainbows than merely the presence of guitarist Jonny Greenwood as the film’s soundtrack composer. Both were long-incubated pieces released in 2007, but Radiohead’s album and Anderson’s Upton Sinclair-based period piece are far more underwhelming than the laborious work and surrounding press would lead you to believe. Thinkpieces about the former all but killing the record industry conveniently leave out the fact that the band’s worldwide platform was built by EMI/Parlophone, and from auditioning the low-fidelity digital files that made up the first release of the album, one wonders why a band uploading its glorified demos onto the Internet was such a big deal at the end of the day.
Between Blood, The Darjeeling Limited, and No Country For Old Men, 2007 was filled with detail-obsessive American moviemakers emphasizing parables set in non-arable, inhospitable land, detailing worlds decidedly masculine and wholly bereft of femininity. The trend no doubt reaches a head in Anderson’s Blood, a story about lone-wolf prospector Daniel Plainview, who graduates from chiseling out silver to tapping into reservoirs of crude oil. From previews alone, the story looks to be a harrowing one, a long-simmering, accusatory movie about how Christianity and capitalism collude and collide. Alas, running at nearly three hours, it fizzles just when it should combust.
That’s not exactly Greenwood’s fault, as the guitarist’s neo-classical turn here is surprisingly strong. Composer-in-residence for the BBC Orchestra (no doubt bringing in an audience of green hairs to mix with the blue hairs), Greenwood deploys orchestral music judiciously throughout. In the voiceless opening sequences, Greenwood uses a range of string timbres, sharpening them into piercing, vertiginous drones. While Arvo Part is no doubt a touchstone for the young composer, the soundtrack here is not unlike Toru Takemitsu’s soundtrack for Woman of the Dunes in that out of the massed strings, Greenwood teases out disembodied choruses and ethereal tones. It mirrors how Plainview gleans oil out of the ground like a straw in a milkshake (an image that comes back during a spittle-flecked monologue at movie’s end).
Come the second act of the film, suddenly the sonic palette widens, with Greenwood deploying piano trios and introducing more melodic elements, the themes especially poignant as the relationships between Plainview and his family members–his surrogate son H.W. and his estranged brother–are explored. Still, though, a dread lurks beneath the surface. As the conflict between church and business intensifies, the derrick suspiciously like the similarly-erected church steeple, so too does the bass section of the orchestra pit grow more anxious in its motifs. And when oil is finally struck, only to burst into a towering inferno, an intense battery of percussion thunders for minutes on end (perhaps another homage to Takemitsu?).
As the movie passes the 120-minute mark, it becomes apparent that the long-anticipated showdown between the oil magnate and the Church of the Third Revelation (fact check) will never quite come to a head. Instead, we get to watch as Plainview’s curmudgeonly, heart-blackened ways crystallize for another fifty minutes, the long-building intensity ebbing away. Greenwood’s music too slowly recedes into the arid backdrop, drying up like an oil well.