Jonny Greenwood: how the Radiohead guitarist became one of the world's best film composers

Jonny Greenwood is perhaps best known as being the lead guitarist/keyboardist of the rock band Radiohead. For over 15 years, though, Greenwood has established himself as an inventive and award-winning film composer

Published: January 12, 2022 at 2:10 pm

Jonny Greenwood might be best known as the lead guitarist in British band Radiohead, but in recent years he's made quite the splash in the film music world, composing some of the best movie scores – with Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations to his name.

Advertisement

When did Jonny Greenwood start composing?

Despite having leapt into the public consciousness through his involvement with the band Radiohead, an early solo departure – the documentary score, Bodysong, in 2003 – lead Jonny Greenwood to receive his first orchestral commission.

2004’s Smear was premiered by the London Sinfonietta and in the same year Greenwood was announced as Composer in Residence with the BBC Concert Orchestra.

His first commission for the BBC Concert Orchestra, Popcorn Superhet Receiver, would play a role in his first full film score in 2007.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood is an Oscar-nominated masterpiece – though Greenwood’s visceral score was ineligible thanks to the use of that earlier piece.

He was, however, nominated for his first BAFTA and won both a Critics Choice award and a London Evening Standard award.

His second score, for Anh Hung Tran’s film Norwegian Wood (2010) would see the composer utilise another existing work, this time Doghouse (composed the same year). Music from that score would go on to be performed at the BBC Proms.

Greenwood would compose the score to yet another critically acclaimed film in 2011. We Need To Talk About Kevin, Lynne Ramsey’s uncompromising 2011 family drama, saw the composer create an unsettling soundscape.

The following year Greenwood reunited with Paul Thomas Anderson for The Master, which cemented their creative partnership. They followed it with Inherent Vice in 2016 and Phantom Thread in 2017. It was Phantom Thread which really threw Greenwood into the upper echelons of the film composing landscape, winning him nominations for the Oscar, BAFTA and Golden Globe for Best Original Score.

Maya Rudolph, Paul Thomas Anderson, Jonny Greenwood and his wife Sharona Katan attend the 90th Academy Awards in 2018
Maya Rudolph, Paul Thomas Anderson, Jonny Greenwood and his wife Sharona Katan attend the 90th Academy Awards in 2018

2017 also saw him reunite with Lynne Ramsey for the acclaimed psychological thriller You Were Never Really Here, starring Joaquin Phoenix.

Greenwood received his first Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for Phantom Thread, not to mention an Ivor Novello award.

His film work has proffered some of the most intense and original scores for some while, with pretty much all of them dealing with humanity’s dark side, its flaws and complex emotional depths.

Meanwhile, he was still composing concert works for orchestra. In 2019, his piece Horror Vacui for solo violin and 68 string instruments received its world premiere at the BBC Proms in a Late Night Prom curated by Greenwood himself. The piece then went on to win Jonny Greenwood an Ivor Composer Award.

2021 was a big year for Greenwood in terms of major film releases, with his scores for Spencer, The Power of the Dog and Licorice Pizza receiving outings in cinemas. The music for the psychological drama fictionalising the life of Diana Spencer saw Greenwood bringing together Baroque techniques with jazz textures, with the ominous, dark overtones he has become known for.

Benedict Cumberbatch starred in the western psychological drama The Power of the Dog, which Greenwood scored and which was commissioned by Netflix. The film received seven nominations at the 79th Golden Globe Awards, winning three, including Best Motion Picture – Drama. Greenwood's score was also nominated, but lost out to Hans Zimmer's epic choral and orchestral score for Dune.

How Jonny Greenwood launched his own classical record label

In 2019, Jonny Greenwood announced that he would be releasing some of his own music on his new classical record label, Octatonic. As part of the label's launch, Greenwood's Three Miniatures from Water was released alongside Industry, Michael Gordon's epic, noisy work for amplified cello and electronics.

‘I’ve decided to start documenting the musicians I encounter in the contemporary classical music world,’ Greenwood said at the time of launch. ‘I’m only recording soloists, or small groups, and as it’s my party, I’m including in the release some of my own small ideas that have never been recorded.’

Are Radiohead classically trained?

Jonny Greenwood is the only member of Radiohead to be classically trained. A term into his studies of psychology and music at Oxford Brookes University, he left to sign a six-album deal with EMI and Radiohead.

Jonny Greenwood and Thom Yorke perform with Radiohead in Macerata, Italy
Jonny Greenwood and Thom Yorke perform with Radiohead in Macerata, Italy

Jonny Greenwood: Filmography

Bodysong (2003)

There Will Be Blood (2007)

Norwegian Wood (2010)

We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011)

The Master (2012)

Inherent Vice (2016)

You Were Never Really Here (2017)

Phantom Thread (2017)

You Were Never Really Here (2018)

Spencer (2021)

The Power of the Dog (2021)

Advertisement

Licorice Pizza (2021)

Authors

Michael BeekReviews Editor, BBC Music Magazine

Michael is the Reviews Editor of BBC Music Magazine. He was previously a freelance film music journalist and spent 15 years at St George's Bristol. Michael specialises in film and television music and was the Editor of MusicfromtheMovies.com. He has written for the BBC Proms, BBC Concert Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Albert Hall, Hollywood in Vienna and Silva Screen Records.

Sponsored content