‘The Master’ Soundtrack: As Haunted As The Film Itself

Music from Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood plays a vital role in Paul Thomas Anderson's latest.

I saw Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” earlier this week, at a screening attended by Adrien Brody, the guy who plays Kenneth on “30 Rock” (he wore a backpack) and, oddly enough, former New York Giants sack-master/current Kelly Ripa side-dish Michael Strahan, who may or may not have been lost.

Needless to say, it was a fairly big to-do, which is probably why Harvey Weinstein not only spent two minutes taking shots at Mitt Romney while introducing the film (people cheered), but promised to stick around after it had finished. “The Master” is the kind of movie that begs to be discussed, whether it be with heads of Hollywood studios or NFL single-season record holders. It is multi-layered and mercurial, infused with both an innate intensity and an incredible sense of sadness, the kind of film that — like all of Anderson’s best — is less about answering the big questions as it is proposing them. Is it about the nascent days of Scientology? Sure, sort of, but it’s also about the desire to belong, the psychology of self, the dynamics of society and the great gaping chasms of the soul. I can’t even begin to imagine what Strahan thought of it.

What did I think? Well, I’m going to withhold final judgment until I see “The Master” again. That doesn’t mean I didn’t like it, a lot, it’s just that it’s so dense that it practically requires repeated viewings before any attempt at a “review” can be made. So where to begin with a film like this? I suppose I could dole out praise to its individual parts — the acting, directing, and cinematography — each of which work marvelously, though it seems I’ve been beaten to the punch. Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman have already earned raves for their work, and the acclaim is definitely justified (Amy Adams is quite good too). Anderson’s assured touch and cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr.’s all-encompassing eye have also been lauded, a trend that will presumably continue all the way through awards season. Editing? Costume design? They’re great too, but I can’t tell the Thelma Schoonmakers from the Arthur Schmidts, and don’t know my Edith Head from a hole in the ground.

So instead, I’m going to talk about the one thing I do know a lot about: music. And I’m grateful for the opportunity. Because the “Master” score was written by none other than Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood (his second collaboration with PTA), and it is positively marvelous. In fact, aside from the top-notch performances and general sense of unease the film left me with — in a lot of ways, watching it feels like you’ve been brainwashed — Greenwood’s score is the one aspect of “The Master” that has stuck with me since my initial viewing. I have listened to it repeatedly, have been enveloped by its scope and enthralled by its intimacy. It is the kind of thing that, like “The Master” itself, requires return engagements to fully appreciate.

Music has always played an integral part in Anderson’s films, whether it be the blissed-out disco hits of “Boogie Nights,” Amy Mann’s austere work on “Magnolia” or the tense trembles Jon Brion provided for “Punch-Drunk Love.” The songs and scores he employs are nearly as important as the characters he creates, especially since, more often than not, Anderson’s characters are usually set pieces in a larger production, pawns in some grand cosmic game. Music sets the pace, marks the tempo, roils and boils with the emotions his characters cannot, will not express.

Of course, in “The Master,” Phoenix’s Freddy Quell is nothing but a series of wild emotions, which is why Greenwood’s score is unlike anything else in Anderson’s universe. Sure, there is tension — like odd time signatures of “Time Hole” or the terse tick-tocks of “Application 45 Version 1″ — though it pales in comparison to the taught strings and stabs Greenwood employed on “There Will Be Blood.” Instead, he underscores each of Quell’s animalistic outpourings with a sublime sadness, a commentary on a man as adrift in society as he was on the battleship he manned in World War II.

Aside from the sublime instrumentation, Greenwood also employs otherworldly voices from yesteryear — Ella Fitzgerald, Jo Stafford, Helen Forrest — that float through the score like apparitions. In that regard, the “Master” soundtrack, much like Quell himself, is haunted, an idea Anderson himself lent credence to in a recent interview with The Huffington Post, when he wondered aloud whether Quell was “a ghost himself.” And that thought, of a man both dead and alive, drifting through life as a specter, only adds to the soundtrack’s chill-inducing powers.

Will Greenwood’s subtle work be as celebrated as the other components that drive “The Master”? I’m not sure, though it definitely deserves to be. His score is as much a character as any of the actors, plays just as vital a role in creating the film’s surreal, psychological edge. It just may be the best score you’ll hear all year (or, more probably, the only one), as mercurial and multilayered as “The Master” itself. It works on a level that goes beyond mere accompaniment, to the point where I’m pretty sure I saw Michael Strahan totally feeling it during the screening. I can’t be sure, though — his seats were better than mine.

Check out everything we’ve got on “The Master.”

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