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The Music of ‘Mandy’: How Johann Johannsson Melded Horror With Heavy Metal

The composer turned in his final score one month before his February death and just in time for Sundance.

Mandy,” which opens Sept. 14, features the final film score by Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson, who died Feb. 9 in Berlin at the age of 48. Described in a Variety review as a “hallucinogenic mashup of Satanic-cult horror and revenge thriller [with] Nicolas Cage in full gonzo mode,” Panos Cosmatos’ film plays Johannsson’s music loud and upfront throughout.

“I wanted the film to have a rock-opera feel,” Cosmatos tells Variety. “I wanted it to be an audio-visual experience, like Ken Russell’s ‘Tommy,’ something like that.”

Cosmatos originally thought that the two-time Oscar-nominated composer (“The Theory of Everything,” “Sicario”) was “out of our reach,” but after a phone conversation with the composer discovered, “beyond his very beautiful, ethereal, mood-based soundscapes, he’d grown up a metal-head.” That, coupled with Johannsson’s professed admiration of Cosmatos’ earlier film “Beyond the Black Rainbow,” sealed the deal.

“He really understood the tone I wanted to achieve, the kinds of textures I wanted,” Cosmatos says. “Among the few touchstones I gave him, as an inspirational starting point, were the Queen soundtrack for ‘Flash Gordon,’ and the Van Halen album ‘Fair Warning,'” both released just prior to the film’s 1983 timeframe.

Yet Johannsson’s score resembles neither of those classics. Partly electronic, partly live players, it’s also heavily edited and processed for a dark, massive, industrial-metal sound that matches the grim, violent, sometimes insane milieu of the film. The score features guitarist Stephen O’Malley of the group Sunn O))) and was co-produced by top metal producer Randall Dunn.

Adds Johannsson’s manager Tim Husom: “Johann had just finished the score for Denis Villeneuve’s film ‘Arrival’ when the ‘Mandy’ mood boards were sent over to us. They were unbelievably cool and scary. To Johann, the idea of working on ‘Mandy’ with Panos was bringing some much needed balance to his score career and a perfect next step. We were working on it right up until the film was delivered to Sundance in early January.”

Coinciding with this week’s release of “Mandy” was the announcement of the Johann Johannsson Foundation, a project of his family, friends, and business associates.

“Johann believed everyone should follow their own creative voice,” says Johannsson agent Kevin Korn of Gorfaine-Schwartz. “He really inspired a whole new generation of artists. The foundation, a not-for-profit organization, is focused on helping connect music creators to music students around the world for workshops, mentorships, composer advocacy with school boards and local music education programs, as well as scholarship grants.”

More about the foundation is expected to be announced at Saturday’s Guild of Music Supervisors conference at USC.

Johannsson died of heart failure in his Berlin apartment. German media reported in June that toxicology reports indicated that cocaine was found in his system, that he had also been taking medication for the flu, and the likely cause of death was a lethal combination of the two.

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