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Film Music Examined #4: Spencer

As a composer often drawn to films because of their interesting and unique scores, I seek out scores that work in the context of the drama but draw my attention for their bold choices with sound world, texture, instrumentation, harmony, melody, and atmosphere. Although a lot of film composers’ music blends into the sound design, merely creating a background tapestry for the story, I find that I admire composers that take the risky step of trying out new techniques and sounds, adding a new and unexpected dimension to the storytelling.


Jonny Greenwood consistently delivers on this front, with classics There Will Be Blood, The Master, Phantom Thread, and most recently, The Power of the Dog. He brings in anachronistic contemporary classical elements to historical dramas, with a strong influence from 20th-century composition including the works of sound mass masters Penderecki. In addition to being a textural maverick, he is also a strong melodist, given his background in playing with Radiohead.


I was most impressed by Greenwood’s score to Spencer (2021), a surreal and intense portrait of Princess Diana’s internal crisis, directed by Pablo Larraín. The story is like a fever dream, outlining surreal events through closeups and drawn-out, slow internal moments. The music does a great job of framing the story’s protagonist through genre and style. It blends two incongruous worlds—baroque strings and a 60s or 70s-style free jazz combo with trumpet, piano, bass, and drums (featuring Byron Wallen, Alexander Hawkins, Tom Skinner, and members of the London Contemporary Orchestra).  


While the string parts are mostly written out, the free jazz group is allowed to improvise, stretching out and playing to its limits. This creates the feeling that the music is nearly always on the precipice of breaking down and falling apart. The dichotomy of these two worlds encapsulates Diana’s character and location—she’s a free spirit trapped in a regal aristocratic world of British monarchy. The free jazz is always bursting at the seams, aching to cut the bars of the spiraling baroque counterpoint, like Diana.


A particularly striking moment is the dinner scene, accompanied by a diegetic string quartet. Trapped by the stifling decorum of the moment, Diana imagines the pearls on her necklace coming off into her soup and her eating them, stifled by her environment and suffering internally. The baroque string quartet unravels and becomes non-diegetic music (known as “scource” in the biz), distorting into dissonant fragments. The same can be said of the dream ballet moment—reflections of a character’s psychology reveled through music, acting, and dance.


Overall, it is a moving and surreal experience—one where the music is allowed to push the drama in more compelling directions than if it had been relegated to a subservient role.


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