Scoring Pynchon

The baroque density of Thomas Pynchon’s novels has for half-a-century dissuaded filmmakers from trying to turn any of them into movies. Paul Thomas Anderson’s valiant—or perhaps just plain crazy—cinematic confrontation with Inherent Vice is the first and probably the last attempt. The ornamented labyrinths of Pynchon’s plots and prose have, like the author himself been unwaveringly camera shy until the labors of Anderson, the mighty auteur of a century-long swath of Southern California history, culture, and folly, beginning with his treatment of LA’s porn industry of the 1970s in Boogie Nights extending back to the Bakersfield oil fields on either side of 1900 in There Will Be Blood.

It is not just the prospect of cramming an overstocked Pynchon fable into two-plus hours that has given pause. (At 148 minutes, Inherent Vice is—ironically, given the whacky richness of the model—only four minutes longer than Anderson’s previous movie, The Master, and quite a bit shorter than Boogie Nights, There Will be Blood, and the three-hour Magnolia.) Creating a convincing soundtrack that captures the texture of the time and also convey something of the multi-layered complexity—and frivolity—of Pynchon’s fiction will also be a daunting task: such a soundtrack will carry an extra-heavy burden if it is to reflect the fusion of labor and lightness that gives Pynchon’s fiction its unique, often disorienting energy.

Any curator of period songs to be included in such a soundtrack will also have to grapple with Pynchon’s own rampant musical proclivities. Over this past Christmas I read Pynchon’s latest novel —the often hilarious and generally unsettling Bleeding Edge of 2013. It’s a book that, like Inherent Vice, is full of musical references—from “Oops, I Did it Again,” by Britney Spears in the opening pages to Barry Manilow’s “Can’t Smile Without You” by way of valediction, with snippets of John William’s Darth Vader to the Doobie Brothers and Don Giovanni and so many others in between. This turbid stream of back- and fore-ground music occasionally makes way for Pynchon’s own ingenious set-piece pop and rap lyrics.

Musicians also figure crucially—or do I mean quirkily?—in Pynchon’s fiction, as in the presumed-dead sax player and COINTELPRO operative Coy Harlingen (rendered with goofy panache by Owen Wilson) in Inherent Vice. By all appearances an off-beat and encyclopedic music lover, Pynchon would seem capable of pronouncing harsher judgments on a movie’s music than of its treatment of the literary content. How should one proceed when Pynchon has already provided his novels with their own soundtracks?

Thus any Hollywood music editor or composer might risk failing to measure up to Pynchon’s musical standards. Alternatively, if those responsible for the soundtrack simply defer to the novelist’s own playlist, the whole cinematic vessel might well sink under its own sonic ballast.

In fighting his way through this dilemma, Anderson has again enlisted Jonny Greenwood, lead guitarist and keyboard player of the English rock band Radiohead, a group still going strong after thirty years and some thirty million albums sold. Greenwood is the only classically trained member of that group and has for the last decade been composing film scores as well, sometimes drawing on Radiohead material, but also featuring his own ambitious, stylistically restless orchestral music. Anderson called on him to provide the soundtrack for There Will Be Blood back in 2007, a score hailed by critics, but predictably disqualified from Oscar contention because the Academy claimed that there were too many tunes borrowed from elsewhere—from Greenwood’s prior work for Radiohead, not to mention the insertion of music by Brahms and the mystical Baltic minimalist Arvo Pärt.

Greenwood is indeed an impressively wide-ranging musician commanding a host of compositional strategies and a vibrant palette of instrumental colors as demonstrated by his affection for the ondes Martenot, an instrument that can range from the ethereal to the aggressive; it is heard in many Radiohead songs and in Greenwood’s astringent composition, Smear.  Teeth-grinding, tuneless effects such as these mark the monomaniacal drive for money staged in There Will Be Blood. Both the brittle and abrasive sides of this strange and beautiful keyboard drift and slash through Greenwood’s score for Inherent Vice.

Greenwood’s considerable classical talents found institutional support in 2004 when he was named BBC Orchestra Composer-in-Residence. That ensemble made grand claims for their man’s standing among the great cinematic composers in a 2011 Proms concert in London that placed excerpts from Greenwood’s film scores alongside those of the legendary Ennio Morricone (Days of Heaven and Once Upon Time in the West, not to mention the Good, the Bad and the Ugly among so many others) and Bernhard Hermann (e.g., Citizen Kane and Vertigo).

The many fans of the Greenwood-Anderson collaboration have heaped praise on the single-disc Inherent Vice soundtrack album released from Nonesuch, while complaining that it presents a only partial slice of Greenwood’s original music working in counterpoint with a fraction of the period songs (e.g., Neil Young’s plaintive “Journey through the Past” and Chuck Jackson’s chugging R & B classic, “Any Day Now) heard in the movie. As far as I can tell, few if any of the dozens of tunes cited by Pynchon in his novel made it on to the soundtrack. Whereas Anderson is true to, if also highly selective with, the novel in mining its literary content, he and Greenwood seem to have felt far freer with respect to the music.

Unexpectedly perhaps, for a book and its movie so macerated in music, Anderson’s Inherent Vice begins without musical commentary: with a shot of the shore seen between two boxy beach houses, we hear only the rustling of Eucalyptus leaves and the restive California surf. Then a gorgeous—and presumably dangerous—woman, Shasta Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), enters the groovy if grungy pad of private investigator Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), thus launching the pot-smoking knight errant on his quest, but not before spawning in him un upwelling of nostalgic love for her, his former girlfriend.

Greenwood embraces his first cue, as if wrapping the movie’s femme fatale—one so apparently free and certainly more scantily clad than her classic film noir forebears—in his own embrace. The composer has said that a large part of the kick he gets out of writing soundtracks is the chance to work with orchestras, and he seizes the opportunity in Inherent Vice by helping himself to a fat slice of late-Romantic strings smothered with desire and regret and topped by a yearning oboe syrup.

This sumptuous fare glows, gorgeous and malignant, like a smoggy seventies sunset. Greenwood’s recipe unabashedly ingredients of the European symphonic tradition as it washed up on Hollywood’s shores with Max Steiner, Erich Korngold, Miklós Rósza, and Franz Waxman. The lithe Greenwood’s updates are generally less goal-oriented in their harmonic trajectories, but he fiddles with all the same knobs on his emotionally mixing-board: loss, love, hope, joy, deceit, death, etc.

This music may be too clever, too knowing for many, but the soundtrack does raise questions at the core of the film. Can nostalgia be cool? Can the smart-aleck in fact be the most sincere of them all, especially when the sun is setting over more than just the Pacific: on the American Dream; on the coherence and freedom of the individual; and, with one final green flash, the planet’s environment? The Romantic musical identity can hardly be held together by an ardent oboe basking like a sun-tanned odalisque in wooden beads and macramé bikini bottoms on a waterbed of strings.

As if hearkening back to that 2011 Proms concert, Greenwood Inherent Vice score also comes with touches of Hermann’s harmonic oscillations, Morricone’s guitar strummings and percussive spur-janglings, and even some surges of heroic melody worthy of John Williams. These flourishes stoke the expectations that might cling to a private dick in the Marlowe mold, even one like Sportello so addled by drugs and shackled by sloth. But there is emotion and intellect and hope and sadness somewhere in that THC-clouded mind, and there is in Greenwood’s music, too. The canonic cascades that wash over Sportello’s dream of Shasta near the end of the movie is a sort of Freudian fountain of wish fulfillment and self-delusion. If movies are dreams, this is one stitched together from the remnants of Hollywood classic scores and later pop songs.

Yet the swell of the aptly named ondes (waves) of Monsieur Martenot as piloted by Greenwood is a fine symbol of the film’s surges confusion, rapture, and disappointment. Even the homeport of a happy ending cannot restore any lasting sense of harmonic balance in the soundscape or the story.

Pastiche would be the pejorative term for this music: fun as far as it goes, but superficial. Some have said the same about the novel, too, and if the music similarly adopts a blithely brilliant attitude towards its characters and their milieu it does so to serve the final message: the Hollywood movie and its soundtrack have run their course; American greed and exploitation doom us; even music can’t help us out of the apocalypse, even if it eases the pain somewhat.

This latest chapter in history of film music seems paradoxically full and empty at the same time. Never has an elegy been so lush and coy and clever, so indifferent to what was once held to be genuine feeling. Greenwood’s score proves that hollow sounding bodies have the greatest resonance.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Bach’s Feet. He can be reached at

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at