The Music of Glass Onion Expresses What the Characters Cant11/21/2022
In “Glass Onion,” the sequel to the 2019 murder mystery “Knives Out,” Rian Johnson has once again assembled an ensemble cast packed with talent and star wattage. This time out, Dave Bautista, Kathryn Hahn, Kate Hudson, Janelle Monáe, Edward Norton, and Leslie Odom Jr. are just some of the potential murder victims and suspects whose actions fall under the scrutiny of Daniel Craig’s ace detective Benoit Blanc. While the performances are exceptional and the writer-director’s dialogue is as fast and funny as it’s ever been, the ace up the film’s sleeve is composer Nathan Johnson’s lush, expressive score, which consistently expresses the emotions the secretive characters are trying to keep hidden.
Johnson has worked with his cousin Rian on several features, including “Brick,” “Looper,” and “Knives Out,” and the close relationship affords the composer opportunities that not many in his field get. “Usually composers are brought in at the last minute, or when the movie’s pretty much done,” he told IndieWire. “Rian brings me on before he’s even finished writing the script, so I get the giddy pleasure of hearing him talk about his ideas and then he sends me the script. Then I also get to go to set.” In the case of “Glass Onion,” that meant bringing a mobile rig to Greece, where Johnson wrote music at night after observing the shoot during the day, “so Rian and I get to dream it all up as the whole movie is coming together.”
During production, Johnson worked on themes and key melodies that would define the different characters and carry through the entire film. There’s a “disruptors’ theme” that repeats with different instruments in the orchestra depending on which character is the focus of any given scene, and which often provides a counterpoint to the action rather than underlining it. “When you have a chance to write very clear character motifs for the different characters you get to play around with inverting those, and not just playing what’s happening textually,” Johnson said. “You don’t want to put a hat on a hat. If the actors are killing it on screen, let’s not just underline what they’re saying, let’s try to go deeper and hit a different level. And when you have these character motifs, you can subvert these things, or you can play around with one character stealing another character’s theme — especially in a mystery like this where you’re kind of laying these breadcrumbs that may not be apparent on first or even second watch, but all of this stuff is emotionally weaving in and out throughout the whole movie.”
©Netflix/Courtesy Everett Collection
Being on set provided Johnson with the inspiration he needed to create all of the film’s individual themes as he responded to the nuances of what the actors were exploring with the director. “I feel like I get a window into one of the most exciting parts of filmmaking, which is seeing the cast bring these characters to life,” Johnson said. “It’s really the point where it all fleshes out and you start to understand what the tone is going to be. In the case of ‘Glass Onion,’ I realized that this was really going to be a lot of fun — even more so than I got from reading the script.”
As fun as it is, one of the pleasures of “Glass Onion” is its tonal dexterity, as the film moves from jubilant comedy to a genuine sense of tragic loss and back again, sometimes within the same scene. Johnson’s score is key to striking the precise emotional balance the movie needs, and that challenge was one of his favorite things about the project. “It’s the best job getting to play in that sandbox,” he said.
While the score aimed for an old-world lushness influenced by Nino Rota and other composers the Johnsons admire, it was important to lean into an empathy for the people at the center of the story. “We have to care about the characters,” Johnson said. “They’re not just a puzzle to figure out.” Perhaps the composer’s greatest triumph in this regard is a theme he composed for Monáe’s character Andi, the heart of the film and the character whose secrets are the most deeply buried — and the most painful. “Andi’s theme is mysterious yet romantic,” Johnson said. “It’s a multifaceted theme that allows us to read different things into it throughout the movie, depending on the context of what’s happening at that time in the story.” The theme is anchored around a repeating piano arpeggio that subtly but clearly conveys the complexity of Andi’s motivations and pain, even before the audience knows any of the details of her life. “You can’t quite tell where she’s coming from as the movie begins, so I wanted it to be beautiful yet dark, and powerful but fragile.”
The composer found that Monáe’s performance was a gift that kept on giving in terms of the ideas it inspired. “It was really rewarding to see what Janelle was creating with that character and then to try to land the emotion and variety of that performance in a subtextual way,” Johnson said. “Getting to see what she was doing on set was amazing, and then when I saw the whole movie edited together she had been doing things that I didn’t even realize. It was so much fun writing for that character because she was giving so much.” It’s fun for the audience too — thanks to the complex but melodic score, “Glass Onion” is a film that is as pleasurable to listen to as it is to watch, and that’s saying something.
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