Radiohead will be touring America this summer, but when or if they add an L.A. date, Angelenos may be getting only the second-best concert of Jonny Greenwood music in 2018. His score for Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Phantom Thread” had its local live premiere Friday at the Theatre at Ace Hotel, un-threading as the film unspooled on the big screen. And while Greenwood did not actually step on stage during the event (he and Anderson merely waved from the front row at credits’ close), he was clearly the rock star of the hour — in the strictly figurative sense of the term, given the 34-piece orchestra that did all the playing.
The 8 p.m. performance sold out immediately enough that a midnight show was added, marking the first time in memory that a symphonic concert in L.A. got out later than the Golden Gopher around the corner has to close up shop. (Presumably, the stomach cramps that Daniel Day Lewis was experiencing at about the 2:05 a.m. mark closely mirrored the feelings of some patrons stumbling out of the King Eddy Saloon around the same time.)
It was a chance for “Phantom Thread” to get some glory before it probably loses — if you listen to the experts — to Alexandre Desplat’s “Shape of Water” score Sunday at the Oscars. That category is unusually strong enough this year that maybe for once it’s not being wishy-washy to wish that literally everybody could win. But the case for Greenwood as most deserving felt strong Friday night, even if he’s still the relative neophyte in the company of John Williams, Hans Zimmer, Carter Burwell, and Desplat. There certainly wasn’t a film that led with its score more boldly in 2017; only a couple of significant scenes play out with no music at all. And Greenwood’s music is distinct in how rarely it nudges the audience with any clues about how to emotionally register what’s happening on screen — which some would say is the very purpose of film music — yet never stops drawing viewers further into what amounts to a great psychological mystery story.
Besides being an enigmatic personality puzzle with some Hitchcockian domestic-suspense elements, “Phantom Thread” is also, at its heart, a romantic comedy… although that really doesn’t become altogether clear until the movie’s weirdly and perversely happy last two or three minutes. That demands a score that has at least the hint of warmth, which, to be honest, hasn’t really been much in Greenwood’s wheelhouse up until now, either in Radiohead, never the happy-go-luckiest of bands, or in his scores for Anderson’s more Kubrickian-ly chilly “There Will Be Blood” and “The Master.”
His “Phantom Thread” music is not without some of his trademark dissonance, too; Vicky Krieps’ final mushroom hunt pretty much demands to be soundtracked with something outrightly unsettling. But it’s the moments where Greenwood allows himself to give way to romanticism that you realize just how much we may have underestimated the potential for warm colors in his palette. The piano-based “House of Woodcock” theme, heard at the top of the film and frequently again throughout, is a sort of love theme, although the way he’s titled it, and where it appears in the film, suggests that it may be a gentle ode to work and purpose. The most truly lovely moments are saved for the end credits theme, which the composer affectionately titles “For the Hungry Boy.” It’s so beautiful that, at the Ace, you wished they’d just shut off the projector so we stopped thinking about the gaffer and best boy and just allowed ourselves to luxuriate in the best “single” Greenwood has ever written. (And that includes “Creep.”)
The original score for “Phantom Thread” was recorded with a 60-piece orchestra, but having that number nearly halved to squeeze onto the minimal space in front of the screen at the former United Artists Theatre didn’t result in any notable diminishment. If the lower manpower were a factor in anyone’s hearing, it certainly didn’t hurt that often the score returns to a solo piano — Kathleen Tinker being the featured pianist here, on loan from the London Contemporary Orchestra, Greenwood’s go-to collaborators for his soundtrack recordings. (Conductor Robert Ames and violinist/concertmaster Galya Bisengalieva were also visiting from the LCO, with the bulk of the ensemble rounded out with Americans from the Wordless Music Orchestra.)
Beforehand, score lovers might have wondered how the Ace performance would handle the non-Greenwood music, as Brahms, Schubert, Berlioz, Debussy, and Faure all got “additional music” credits in the handout. Pre-existing sources account for close to a half-hour of music in the 135-minute film, on top of the 55 minutes of original music that appear on the strictly-Greenwood soundtrack album. Fortunately the Academy didn’t rule that the score was ineligible, the way they did when they dismissed “There Will Be Blood” from contention due to the classical augmentation. At the Ace, all the outside music was performed live, too, alongside Greenwood’s, except for a pair of lengthy Oscar Peterson orchestral jazz pieces that set a relaxing tone in the first 20 minutes of the film. (The crowd might not have even noticed the transitions between live and recorded music, if not for the film’s sound cutting out briefly during one of the Peterson-scored themes.)
Anderson’s movie is filled with “aha!” moments that turn out really not to be aha moments at all: You think Leslie Manville will be painted as a sinister, if not incestuous, sister right out of a gothic thriller, and then she turns out to be the most likable character in the movie. You think the protagonist will be an increasingly fearsome control freak, and then the film ends with the unlikely sight of Daniel Day Lewis giggling with meek delight. You think Krieps will be a victim, then a murderess, and she winds up neither. It was Greenwood’s tough job to make sure the music never sent out distinct signals about how we should be feeling about any of these characters, yet offer a human pulse that keeps us mesmerized. That he did, masterfully, and when Anderson finally tips his hand at the end, revealing that the movie is about just how warped a marriage can be while finding some kind of strange, loving functionality, Greenwood is there with him, providing something we might never have thought we’d get out of his music: sweetness.
Live-score concerts are increasingly common, of course, but one way this one differed was in how unimportant it was to have the film on screen to accompany the music. There were few cues that directly tied to a “beat” on screen, and it’s clear Anderson edits his scenes mostly to fit Greenwood’s music, or at least the beginnings and endings of his compositions. The sellout factor might not be as quick without the film on screen as a drawing factor, but the music stands apart enough that it’d be a treat to get a reprise of this particular show with nothing to look at besides 34 people dressed in black… And, okay, maybe Krieps modeling one of the film’s costumes, as a value-added bonus.