The latest film from acclaimed, multi-Oscar-nominated writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights; Magnolia; Punch-Drunk Love), Inherent Vice is a sun-baked, psychedelic, 1970s-set neo-noir by way of a stoner comedy. Adapted from Thomas Pynchon's novel, the film casts Joaquin Phoenix (with whom Anderson worked on 2012's The Master) as spaced out Los Angeles private eye Doc Sportello, who becomes embroiled in an increasingly convoluted case of kidnap, blackmail and murder. The film hasn't generated the strongest reviews of Anderson's career, although praise has been reserved for Phoenix and the supporting cast which includes Josh Brolin, Reese Witherspoon and Benicio Del Toro. Reuniting with Anderson for the third time is Radiohead guitarist-turned-film-composer Jonny Greenwood, whose scores for the director's previous movies There Will Be Blood and The Master were acclaimed for their uncompromising sense of darkness and alienation. One need only think of the opening sequence of the former, accompanying Daniel Day-Lewis mining for silver in a cave, to be reminded of the claustrophobic intensity of Greenwood's music. Many composers over the years have migrated from rock and pop music into film scores (Danny Elfman from Oingo Boingo; Clint Mansell from Pop Will Eat Itself) and Greenwood is no exception, his soundtracks fusing classical and experimental sensibilities in the manner of his work on Radiohead.
Even so, this is the first time Greenwood has dabbled in the world of noir soundtracks, the history of which is of course a complex and long-ranging one. It's a genre that's been around since the early days of cinema, shaping and re-shaping itself over the years, and consequently the accompanying soundtracks have changed with it, from the lushly menacing arrangements of Miklos Rosza's Double Indemnity in 1946 to Jerry Goldsmith post-modern take on genre conventions in 1974's Chinatown. Another key point of reference is Robert Altman's 1973 film The Long Goodbye, an acknowledged influence on Inherent Vice, and whose arrangements of John Williams' jazzy title song are only ever heard in diegetic form (in other words, operating from a source visible within a given scene, such as a radio).
Broadly speaking, noir is a genre that's frequently used melody to draw audiences into a world of lies and deception. And all of the aforementioned works are key influences on Greenwood's moodily enticing score for Inherent Vice, almost certainly the most accessible he's composed for Anderson. Of course, the most obvious influences are Greenwood's previous scores for the director, albeit the more melodic portions of those works. And of course, with the film being set in the 1970s, songs are a key part of the atmosphere, with numbers such as Neil Young's "Journey Through the Past" and Minnie Riperton's "Les Fleurs" carefully woven around Greenwood's music.
Greenwood's key aim seems to be pulling the listener into the woozy mindset of Phoenix's central character, creating a sense of mystery that resonates with both danger and allure. Recorded with London's Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the music puts emphasis on melody, something that becomes immediately apparent in the opening track "Shasta". Named after Doc's ex-girlfriend (played by Katherine Waterston), who's responsible for pulling him into the mystery, the familiar Greenwood wash of hazy strings and woodwinds is established. However, there's a greater sense of emotional directness here, the composer creating a real sense of beauty undercut with the slightest hint of ambiguity.
The majority of Greenwood's score continues in the same vein, reflecting the kaleidoscopic intrigue of the narrative whilst the songs serve to capture the period. However, there are occasional changes in tone. "Meeting Crocker Fenway", along with the later "Spooks" and "Under the Paving Stones – The Beach", overlays dialogue on top of the music, presumably to show deference to Pynchon's famously labyrinthine prose. Nevertheless, it melds nicely with the gentle surf rock vibe that Greenwood establishes, all acoustic guitars and snare drums as the composer feeds off the dope-smoking milieu of the film. It's back to lush moodiness in the lengthy "Shasta Fay", Greenwood creating subtle modulations in the music, ripples in the musical pool that carefully adjusts the listener's emotional perception. In the process, he crafts something attractive that darkens and deepens as it continues.
"The Chryskylodon Institute" and "Adrian Prussia" are the score's sole moments of urgency, turbulent background strings and pizzicati creating a sense of purposeful movement, although the overall tone is still relatively languid. The latter even features the eerily undulating tones of a Theremin, further enhancing the spaced-out mood of the film's characters. "The Golden Fang" adds layer upon layer, building from glockenspiel and acoustic guitar to increasingly assertive strings and moody woodwinds; it's not altogether unlike Ennio Morricone's thriller scores of the 1970s. "Amethyst" is a lovely acoustic guitar/harmonica solo, beautifully nostalgic, before the conclusive "Shasta Fay Hepworth" leaves us with the enigmatic yet attractive main theme, this time embellished with more prominent woodwind and string solos.
Inherent Vice continues the fine, distinctive partnership between Jonny Greenwood and Paul Thomas Anderson. As in previous collaborations, the director clearly allows for a great deal of creative freedom in the music, utilising it as another form of dialogue that communicates further levels of emotion and feeling. Although the music's application in the film itself is perhaps more conventional than we've come to expect, interwoven with a great selection of period pop tunes, it's nevertheless possessed of an elusive, haunting quality that lingers in the mind. Impressively, Greenwood has established a recognisable musical voice over just five feature films, and although Inherent Vice is almost certainly the most straightforward of all his scores, it still retains the technical complexity for which he's renowned.