Sunday, 25 February 2018

Remembering Jóhann Jóhannsson

On Oscar night, February 28 2016, I Tweeted: “My heart says that Jóhann Jóhannsson should win Best Score for Sicario, but my head says it will be Morricone.” And so it was that Ennio Morricone won his first original score soundtrack for Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, but my disappointment was tempered by a Retweet and Like from the composer’s account. Nobody resented the Italian Maestro finally getting that award, but we all knew that the score for Denis Villeneuve’s thriller was something special – visceral, brutal, pounding soundtrack that perfectly propelled the drama.

While I was already aware of his work on Villeneuve’s Prisoners and Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything (first Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe win) it was Sicario that put him on the map for me, and I was doubly-thrilled to hear that not only was he scoring Villeneuve’s sci-fi opus Arrival, but also the follow-up to Blade Runner. And it was with this enthusiasm that I contacted his ‘people’, requesting an interview for publication in Film Score Monthly. Less than 24 hours later I was Skyping him in Berlin, and he was in a buoyant mood. He had every reason to be – in addition to the sci-fi projects, he’d been employed for Darren Aronofsky’s then-unnamed next film (mother!) and had been signed up by prestigious classical music label Deutsche Grammophon.

Of Arrival, he told me: “The film is about communication and language, so that immediately led me to using vocals on the score. The second idea was to use tape loops; I was intrigued by the circular way of working and thinking. For the vocals I worked with a number of different singers and vocal ensembles. There are almost no synthesisers on the score; it’s digitally processed, but it’s all from analogue.” And it was that curiosity to play with different sounds, textures and instruments that showed a desire to find that unique voice.

Of the original Blade Runner he shared: “I think it’s a masterpiece. It’s one of the best science fiction films ever made. For many people of my generation Blade Runner was a really seminal film. When I first saw it as a teenager I was entranced by it.” And of the still-untitled movie, which was still a year away, he said: “There are many film scores composed in much shorter a time than a year, so it’s actually a privilege and a luxury to have so much time to work on it.”

In fall 2016 he toured North America and Europe with his non-soundtrack solo album Orphée, and I had the pleasure to be in the front row at London’s Barbican Hall. Things were looking good, particularly with the prospect of Blade Runner 20409, which would be his biggest project to date. And then in summer 2017 it was announced that Jóhann had left the movie, being replaced by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch. Initially there was nothing official being said about this change, thought Villeneuve would later go on record to say “…the movie needed something different, and I needed to go back to something closer to Vangelis. Jóhan [sic] and I decided that I will need to go in another direction — that’s what I will say. I hope I have the chance to work with him again because I think he’s really a fantastic composer.” Sadly, they would never work again on another movie, and if the last-minute change of composers was plannedd to help the film perform better at the box office, this didn’t come to pass either.

At least we had mother! to look forward to, but then it was confirmed that the score had been removed in the latest re-cut, with the composer now taking a credit for music and sound consultant. You may be wondering why I’m lingering on two of what must have been negative experiences for the Icelander, and yet, I’m not surprised this happened. He was never conventional, he was too daring for many – he was avant garde, he was unique. 

This year we have Nicolas Cage horror thriller Mandy to look forward to, of which Roger Ebert said: ''[director] Cosmatos is the dominating force for #Mandy's avant-garde horror first half, relishing demonic synth music cues (from Johann Johannsson) & establishing many characters as mysterious, rambling beings of an insidious universe.'' He also scored Colin Firth sailing drama The Mercy for his Theory of Everything director James Marsh, the soundtrack just released by Deutsche Grammophon, and it’s beautiful. And later this year, watch Garth Davis' Rooney Mara-starrer Mary Magdalene, co-scored by Jóhann and Hildur Guðnadóttir (who has also scored Sicario 2: Soldado).

Manager Tim Husom confirmed to Jóhann’s 47,000 Facebook followers: “It is with profound sadness that we confirm the passing of our dear friend Jóhann. We have lost one of the most talented and brilliant people who we had the privilege of knowing and working with. May his music continue to inspire us.” I’ve written this piece within hours of the news and I feel a little raw and terribly sad. I can’t imagine how his close friends and family feel, but collectively we have all lost a great talent. Thankfully his legacy will live on through his beautiful, brutal, epic, quiet and daring music.

This article first appeared in the February 2018 edition of Film Score Monthly Online, the industry's premiere film music resource.  

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