The ‘Phantom Thread’ Score Is Like Its Own Coming-of-Age Story
Wow wild how Jonny Greenwood put out the album of the year in January and it's a no-vocals orchestral soundtrack.
This is a regular column where I'll mostly be writing about new music—not all the time—and feelings and how they both scrape an extra layer of enjoyment onto this whole existing thing. See you for the next one.
There’s a scene in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread where you watch waitress-turned-model Alma Ensel swish along a catwalk in an exquisitely made gown, the fabric billowing just so. Then the camera suddenly flips out of the brightly lit room and you’re looking at it from the outside in, through a peephole. Alma—played by Luxembourger actress Vicky Krieps—sees she’s being watched and you can just about make out a man’s upper cheek and eye through the squint of the peephole.
That eye belongs to Daniel Day-Lewis in his final acting role as Reynolds Woodcock, the man who designed the dress Alma’s wearing. A flicker of recognition passes between them, the softest hint of a smile lifts on her face, and all the while a soaring strings composition soundtracks their unspoken exchange. By the end of the film, which is set in 1950s London, the power dynamic of their relationship will have flipped in a completely unexpected and exhilarating and borderline sadistic way. At this stage, though, every shot oozes a delicate kind of beauty.
Without giving too much away, I’ll say that Phantom Thread subverts a typical story—older boy meets younger girl, older boy is really clever and woos her with his smarts, girl realizes maybe he’s a pernickety grump who chooses to deny himself love—before twisting it into an entirely new shape in the third act. But that’s not the main reason why moments from this film stayed with me for days after I watched it, flickering in my mind’s eye like a candle when you walk just a bit too close past it. Its score, built mostly on rippling, sumptuous piano and strings parts, is already my most-listened-to album of the year. It came out last Friday. Written by previous Anderson collaborator Jonny Greenwood—yes, the one from Radiohead—the soundtrack is a highly addictive, 55-minute barrage of emotive arrangement. It’s one of those scores that pulls you into vividly recalling the particular scene that Anderson married with each piece of music while simultaneously inviting you to conjure up moments from your own life that might fit it.
But more than that, Greenwood’s score helps to tell a story of womanhood that slowly reveals itself within what seems, at first, to be a standard romantic drama celebrating tempestuous male genius. The crux of Phantom Thread’s story is Woodcock’s character, sure. Yet by the time you witness the transformation that Alma undergoes, from sweet and naive to someone with a vengeful streak to be at the end of the story—which I can’t get into in that much detail here, because people on the internet are really touchy about spoilers—Greenwood’s score has enveloped you entirely in that character change. When I listen to the score now, to the booming orchestral percussion and whinnying violins that fill every corner of “Phantom Thread III” or the arpeggiated strings and piano that cascade like tulle on “Endless Superstition,” I imagine Alma’s character learning to understand herself, and each song accompanying her personal growth. Really, the soundtrack plays like an accompaniment to any transformative period in a woman’s life.
That said, Phantom Thread initially pissed me off. It felt like a very beautifully shot display of male-centric nonsense, and self-congratulatory ego. Woodcock is painted as sharply meticulous, relying on routine and repetition in order to go through a cycle of his own: find a muse, use her as fuel to create, design a line of dresses, work non-stop in your big house with your team of near-silent female helpers, display the collection, deflate like a pierced poached egg. Repeat. I rolled my eyes a lot—surely we’ve had enough “male genius” films already? Yet Anderson’s film takes you inside the mind of Alma, too—a rarity in an industry where models historically are expected to be seen and not heard.
Woodcock scouts Alma when she serves him in a countryside cafe, before uprooting her and taking her off to the city to live as a walking mannequin/lover. There, she learns that being cast as a muse isn’t necessarily as romantic as it seems from afar. Greenwood doesn’t hold back on establishing the precision of Woodcock’s daily life, using a song called “House of Woodcock” as the glue to tie together a montage of that routine. The song runs from softly lilting piano verses to string choruses that swell so as to be perfectly paired with shots of movement—lace fluttering near a dress form, Day-Lewis slicking his hair away from his forehead with pomade, the camera lens widening to take in a shot of a rich society client looking up the sweeping stairs in the multi-storey house and atelier where Woodcock both works and lives.
Usually, I find music in a film can pull me out of it too much. Songs with recognizable vocal hooks make my neck snap away from the storyline and towards the band or singer in question—say, with Sufjan Stevens seeming to tip-toe into the room during last year’s masterful Call Me By Your Name or Cyndi Lauper forever feeling like a main character in Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion. So Greenwood’s score is like the inverse of that. Wielding cellos like mallets, he transports you directly into scenes from the film and ones from real life. Listening to “Sandalwood II” for a third time on my walk to work, Greenwood manages to pull at that particular thread in my chest which recalls all the other moments when women I know, like Alma, learned to stand up for themselves in the face of someone more powerful or wealthy who didn’t necessarily know more than those women did. Watch how the fidgety piano sits alongside one of Alma’s small rebellions in a scene like this—soundtracked by song “The Hem”—to see what I mean.
I wouldn’t go so far as to call this film a coming-of-age story—Alma’s character is too firmly in her twenties for that—but it’s a study in what real vulnerability feels like, and how each of us can unravel when we truly submit to someone else that comprehensively. To be a straight woman in love means knowing that you may traditionally be expected to be less ambitious than your partner, or to take care of things in the house, or do unpaid emotional labour. To be a straight man seems to include pressures to “provide,” to succeed in the public sphere. But Greenwood’s music distills some of what that tension can feel like, in all of its tenderness and confusion. I didn’t start the year expecting a no-vocals soundtrack of songs ostensibly about dresses to be the most compelling music I’ve heard in ages. Then again, I didn’t expect a woman from Luxembourg to embody so much of what has gone unsaid in relationships I’ve had and observed. So go on, have a look through this peephole—you don’t have to love fashion to get it.
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