You won’t see him on screen, admire him on the red carpet, or schmooze with him at the après party. But listen and you’ll get your chances to hear him.
Bach does a lot of unpaid work for Hollywood, and in turn Hollywood has done a lot of work on him, transforming his brand from that of a local outfit conducting the family business in the Thuringian forests of central Germany to a global sonic force. The princes and princesses of the moving image have made this bewigged 18th-century musical courtier, municipal functionary, and die-hard monarchist into something he wasn’t back in his day: a dark schemer, a mastermind control-freak.
Way back in 1940 in the opening number of the animated classic Fantasia, Disney literally gave a platform to the monomaniacal conductor Leopold Stokowski to conjure a shadowy fascist takeover, asteroid threats, the extreme weather of climate change—all with the gothic horrors of the Toccata and Fugue in D minor: Bach as threat to humanity.
Fourteen years later the Mouse House returned that same piece to live action and to its first home—the organ, this one housed in Captain Nemo’s Nautilus, the mad submarine scientist blasting away on the Toccata in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
Played by man-machine-of-a-butler Erich von Stroheim, Bach’s Toccata had a few years prior driven William Holden’s kept man screen writer to distraction and then death in the Beverly Hills mansion of Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard of 1950.
Jumping ahead to 1991 and Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lamb, the Bach-loving mass murderer Hannibal Lecter added a pair of policemen to his kill tally to the tune of his beloved Goldberg Variations.
These (in)famous examples of socio/psycho-pathic Bach are just the tip of a sonic iceberg that shows no signs of melting even in the rapidly warming waters off Tinseltown.
Writer-director Rian Johnson’s Glass Onion, streaming now on Netflix, chips another block off that same iceberg, refrigerating Bach’s music as the stuff of dark, even disturbed geniuses across a century of cinematic sound.
Glass Onion is a movie of many cameos, its prologue a riot of celebrity sightings. The biggest density of who’s-that? moments comes early on in the proceedings when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Natasha Lyonne, Stephen Sondheim and Angela Lansbury appear on a laptop screen. That laptop is perched on the side of a bathtub in which sits master sleuth Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig). They’re all playing Among Us, an online game dedicated, like the film itself, to betrayal masked as cooperation.
At first-and-only-glance the quartet makes for an unlikely mash-up. But Lansbury lead role in the long-running television series Murder, She Wrote is the only most winkingly on-point reference to detective work in this second installment of Johnson’s neo-Agatha Christa franchise—Glass Onion being the sequel to his rollicking 2019 hit, Knives Out. Lansbury’s fellow gamers are legitimate members of the club, too: Sondheim for his murderous Sweeney Todd; Jabbar for his kung fu duel with Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon (like Glass Onion set on an island fortress); and Lyonne rates inclusion on account of her portrayal of an inmate in the Netflix prison comedy-drama Orange Is the New Black. Her presence evokes the threat of incarceration for those apprehended thanks to Blanc’s forensic smarts.
Johnson worked these cameos into his film during the editing process, that is, only after principal photography had been completed. Lansbury and Sondheim were both in their 90s and died before the film was released. Their fun, fleeting appearances in the controlled chaos of the opening scenes proved to be their last.
One might also say that Craig’s central role is nothing more than an extended cameo. After a string of blockbusting James Bond pictures, he becomes here a man of physical inaction. He uses his mind rather than his derring-do and high-tech gizmos. Behind a grizzled face shaken and stirred by Spectre, hums an effete genius’s brain. And rather than the upscale English accent deployed in Her Majesty’s service (Craig unlearned his northern accent after going to drama school in London), he delivers his lines in a campy drawl purporting to be native to the American South. Perhaps after a run as Bond the rest of one’s career becomes a series of cameos, the actor doomed to be eternally cast against type, just as it has been for Bach in Hollywood, who gets the movie’s first cameo.
From the darkened screen emanates a lone theme played on the piano—serious, maybe even mournful. The affect seems an odd prelude to a capering comedy. Rudely disturbing these poised strains, an out-of-tempo hand knocks on the sturdy paneled front door of what must be a luxurious house. The door opens and we see that the hand belongs to a delivery man dropping off a big cardboard box.
As the theme continues to explore its minor key, we enter the house, the mansion of the the Governor of Connecticut (Kathryn Hunt). She’s about to do a CNN interview (Jack Tapper does this cameo) from home and is talking on a cellphone. As she signs for the package she realizes that she’s not wearing a mask, presumably in violation of her own protocols: “Oh shit, sorry!” she apologizes in hardly gubernatorial tones, ineffectively tyring to cover her mouth with the armpit of her jacket sleeve.
A second voice joins in on the piano soundtrack, combining with the first. We are hearing a fugue.
The Governor rushes to get herself set in front of the camera pointed at her desk. The careful counterpoint expands as makeup is applied to her face. When Tapper appears on the Governor’s the plug is peremptorily pulled on the fugue. It will soon be back for a second cameo.
Packages just like that received by the Governor have also been delivered to several of her old pals quarantining in far-flung locations. These gifts have been sent to each of them by their shared and much-admired friend, a madcap Elon Musk-type billionaire (Ed Norton), who lives on the Greek Island they’ll soon find out that they’re being invited to for a murder mystery game weekend in honor of the celebrity capitalist’s birthday.
To get that invitation they most penetrate the over-engineered box whose outer surface is a beautifully crafted maze of wooden inlay. It turns out to be a stereogram with a hidden button. There are many more strata to descend through. Over a group call, the gang peels back the layers of their cubical onions, eventually coming to a Swiss-made music box that plays the opening fugue at a much more spritely tempo. The Governor shouts, “It’s music, it’s music!” Kate Hudson’s vacuous faded super model, Birdie Jay, thinks the Governor is mocking her, but more likely it’s Johnson gently making fun of Bach (the composer as musical machine learner and proto-AI artiste), his characters, his audience, and perhaps himself.
Birdie chirpily commands Alexa to Shazam the song, but her amazon-bot isn’t listening. Instead, Yo-Yo Ma, one of the many cool and colorful people in Birdie’s hedonistic pandemic pod, dips into the frame to explain what we’re hearing: “Hey, this is Bach’s Little Fugue in G minor.” Birdie’s personal assistant (Jessica Henwick) is skeptical. “Are you sure?” she asks. “Yeah,” nods Yo-Yo. “It’s a beautiful musical puzzle based on just one tune, and when you layer this tune on top of itself it starts to change and turns itself into a beautiful new structure”— just like Johnson’s movie is the not-so-subtle subtext.
Bach wrote the fugue for the organ—long since rendered a symbol of depravity by Hollywood—and it is cute that we now hear the opening piece on a tiny, tinny simulacrum of the King of Instruments. It is no coincidence the Little G minor shares many features of the fugue that follows Bach’s overexploited, notorious Toccata in D minor.
Insinuating itself beneath the euphoria of discovery and the rush to get to that designer island, the soundtrack takes up these same Bachian tropes. As the characters solve the remaining few layers of riddles and at last read out the invitation to the birthday bash, the main movie theme surreptitiously pursues its own sharp-edged faux-fugue (if not knives out, then elbows). The invention of composer Nathan Johnson, this jaunty bit is played on a harpsichord, the baroque keyboard miming the baroque contortions of the plot as it will continue to do periodically throughout the picture. Unable to sustain its own counterpoint, the solo segues into a trilling concerto riding mock-epic updraughts of orchestral adventure music.
Bach’s clever little cameo fugue cocks an ear to his own Hollywood past while serving as a metaphor of the intricacies of the film’s plot and the plotting of a mad genius murderer. Even if Bach’s contribution to the film is less maniacal than mischievous, malevolent this music remains in the modern soundtrack.