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How Composer Jóhann Jóhannsson Helped Change the Genre Cinema Soundscape

Through his work with director Denis Villeneuve, composer Jóhann Jóhannsson invited audiences to think, instead of telling them how to feel.

Over the span of just a handful of film scores, Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson expanded our idea of what film music can be, earning Oscar nominations for “Sicario’s” sinister, evil-incarnate soundscape to the relatively upbeat, mind-racing energy that drove the Stephen Hawking biopic “The Theory of Everything.” Now, at age 48, this exciting young virtuoso has died, and though that tragically means a career cut short, expect to hear the echoes of his influence for years to come.

When one considers the sheer volume of Hollywood films made each year, it’s astonishing just how small the pool of composers relied upon to supply their soundtracks — which makes it all the more remarkable when a new talent appears on the scene. In Jóhannsson’s case, most of us took note when director Denis Villeneuve (himself an outsider, hailing from the world of French-language Canadian art cinema) tapped Jóhannsson to write the music for “Prisoners” — although he’d actually done a couple other English language projects, including SoYong Kim’s indie “For Ellen” and the Ashton Kutcher movie “Personal Effects,” prior.

“Prisoners” was an unconventional thriller in nearly every respect, drawing out a macabre child-abduction case to nearly two and a half hours. Pushing back against genre clichés, Villeneuve let both the tension and underlying tragedy of the material fester in the audience’s imagination, and the fact that we went along with it owes a great deal to Jóhannsson’s contributions: Overseeing an orchestra in which icy strings took the lead, the composer created a sense of solemn dread, mixing in the haunting sound of a computer-processed cello to suggest a kind of devil’s mass. Jóhannsson’s music increased the tension not by falsely stirring up our anxiety, but by taking a step back and letting our imaginations run to worst-case scenarios of what the mystery’s solution might be (a strategy repeated in slow-burn Nicolas Cage starrer “Mandy,” an uneasy mind game that just premiered in Sundance’s midnight section).

That was the first of three collaborations between Jóhannsson and Villeneuve, followed by “Sicario” and “Arrival,” and each sounds radically different not just from the others, but from the vast majority of film music being produced today. “Sicario” picks up a technique Hans Zimmer had pioneered with director Christopher Nolan — namely, a deep foghorn-like, bass-driven score you can literally feel vibrating in your bones — and incorporated a number of digitally manipulated, virtually non-musical elements, including a kind of racing distortion most evident in “The Beast” track, capable of putting audiences physically on edge. It’s enough to give you nightmares, as if whatever dark force the film’s heroes were up against was clawing its way up directly from your subconscious.

Jóhannsson’s work on “Arrival” marks a career high, delivering a totally unprecedented, unexpectedly unique musical fingerprint to a film Villeneuve deliberately wanted to distinguish from science-fiction thrillers that had come before. Early on, as giant UFOs appear hovering over a dozen locations worldwide, Jóhannsson’s awestruck score prepares us for any eventuality. It doesn’t point to a terrifying extraterrestrial invasion per se, but instead opens our minds — which, of course, is precisely the attitude Amy Adams needs in order to interpret the visitors’ alien message. Like “Prisoners,” so much of “Arrival” depends on audiences’ willingness to go deep with Villeneuve, to spend the extra mental energy considering what the movie itself only begins to suggest, and in that respect the score becomes an essential tool, inviting (and perhaps even sparking) that more profound level of engagement with the material.

Villeneuve had intended to collaborate with Jóhannsson again on “Blade Runner 2049,” and the composer had actually secretly begun work on a score long before the world even learned that Villeneuve had been tapped to direct the project. For some reason, Villeneuve opted to go in a different direction (both sides had been diplomatically silent on the subject). Knowing Jóhannsson’s work, it’s easy to guess that the stunningly original musician may have veered too far from the musical identity established by Vangelis in Ridley Scott’s 1982 classic (whereas Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer, who ultimately landed the gig, pay their respects, while innovating their own sound in the process).

One thing Villeneuve made eminently clear in interviews was that he had hoped to use Jóhannsson again. Yet despite the composer’s tragic and untimely death, audiences still haven’t heard the last of  his scores — between “Mandy,” James Marsh’s “The Mercy” (which opened yesterday in the U.K.) and Garth Davis’ upcoming “Mary Magdalene,” there are several more to come. More importantly, Jóhannsson’s technique of combining acoustic instruments and unconventional digital enhancements to position a film’s identity, as opposed to merely underscoring the action, was recognized and embraced by his peers (as his two Oscar nominations attest), and with any luck, other composers can be expected to carry on the work he started.

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