Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood on his film scoring career: “Getting access to an orchestra means you’re suddenly in a band with 48 people”

How did a member of Radiohead end up soundtracking a Princess Di biopic? It’s “weirdly like a horror film”, explains Jonny Greenwood

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“I started by looking at the music of the ’80s that Diana would have liked, but it’s a bit of a cul-de-sac…” Jonny Greenwood is explaining his crabwise approach to composing
his latest soundtrack. Spencer, by Chilean director Pablo Larraín, is set across three unhappy days in the life of Princess Diana (Kristen Stewart) one Christmas at Sandringham, and is, according to Greenwood, “weirdly like a horror film. It’s more claustrophobic and dark; all the things The Crown isn’t.”

Greenwood’s looming, atonal string scores for films such as There Will Be Blood and Phantom Thread have been rightly acclaimed, and his standalone compositions have even been performed at the Proms. Casting out the baggage of traditional orchestration from so many costume dramas, on Spencer he actively demolishes the sounds of a traditional baroque ensemble. “One at a time, while they were playing, the idea was to substitute the musicians with free-jazz players. So the music would mutate slowly, gradually shifting from one world into the next. You hear these familiar sounds – harpsichords and trumpets and kettle drums – but they’re being played by jazz musicians. I’ve got great footage
of Tom Skinner playing these two timpanis, hitting every part of them – it’s quite exciting.”

Skinner, of course, is the Sons Of Kemet drummer who also plays with Greenwood and Thom Yorke in new Radiohead spin-off The Smile. The other musicians are veterans of London’s vibrant jazz subculture: trumpeter Byron Wallen, keyboardist Alexander Hawkins and bassist John Edwards. “It’s maybe a bit heavy-handed,” Greenwood concedes, “but it felt like the music was the right combination of things. Diana is such a chaotic and colourful person among all this drab, oppressive, staid tradition.”

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Although Spencer is unequivocally critical of the royal family, Greenwood is not necessarily a republican. “Who is it said that [the Windsors] are a nice, middle-class German family?” he laughs. “Getting rid of the monarchy would just be a cosmetic change, and I don’t see that France is any freer as a country than we are. It’s funny, but the most liberal European countries, like the Scandinavians and Holland, they’ve all got monarchies. I’d rather have that than a people’s president in a palace somewhere. I don’t see that that’s better – or at least, it’s a lot more boring.”

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