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Johann Johannsson
Johann JohannssonPhotography Antje Taiga Jandrig

Remembering the incomparably vivid movie scores of Jóhann Jóhannsson

A year on from his death, we speak to those close to the Icelandic composer about his innovative soundtracks for films like Arrival, mother!, and Mandy

When asked about his Golden Globe-winning score for The Theory of Everything, James Marsh’s high-gloss Stephen Hawking biopic from 2014, Jóhann Jóhannsson said he hoped it would serve as a kind of “gateway drug” to his work.

If that’s true, what are we to make of his soundtrack to Mandy, Panos Cosmatos’s acid-fried revenge flick starring Nicolas Cage in full berserker mode? Barred from inclusion at this weekend’s Academy Awards on a technicality, Johannsson’s score is among the strangest things he ever produced, a swirling black mass of 80s video nasty and drone metal influences shot through with moments of startling beauty. A year on from the composer’s death at the age of 48, it’s a wild last chapter that suggests the composer was ready to follow his muse into ever weirder territory.

But how did Mandy’s sublime marriage of sound and vision come to pass? On paper, at least, the collaboration was an unlikely one. Jóhannsson, a two-time Academy Award nominee with roots in the indie music scene of 1980s Iceland, was a minimalist at heart who brought brooding restraint and intelligence to the Hollywood blockbuster. Cage, who spends much of the film slicked in blood and brandishing a chainsaw, is... not that.

But Mandy was also the passion project of Greek-Canadian auteur Cosmatos, who turns a B-movie premise about a guy avenging his wife’s death at the hands of a sinister hippie cult into a slow-burning, psychedelic meditation on grief. It’s a trip, in other words, and Jóhannsson’s drone-metal inflected score is key to the indelible impression it leaves.

Cosmatos says he was looking for a composer who would bring a “lateral perspective” to his film, but never considered Jóhannsson as he’d assumed “he was way out of my league”. But Jóhannsson had seen Beyond the Black Rainbow, Cosmatos’s sci-fi debut of 2010, and been impressed by its mining of 80s genre tropes for deeply personal ends. What’s more, says Jóhannsson’s manager Tim Husom, the composer had grown tired making music for big Hollywood studio films, and was looking for a way to return to his independent roots: “He wanted to go back to making quote-unquote ‘fucked-up music’ again. And when Mandy came along he was so excited because he loved Panos’s work; he was genuinely like a goofy kid.”

Jóhannsson’s score for Mandy pulses with dread, a scorched-earth soundscape of subterranean synth rumbles and droning guitars courtesy of Sun O))) musician Stephen O’Malley (Skúli Sverrisson, a regular collaborator, provides fretless bass). Ghosting through the mix is “Mandy’s Love Theme”, a hushed oasis of rippling guitar chords that reflects the anguished love story at the film’s core. It’s among the most beautiful things he’s ever done.

Get past the chainsaws and the leather-clad demons, and Mandy is basically a retelling of the Orpheus myth, which Jóhannsson tackled on his own album, Orphée, in 2016. On a deep, primal level, it’s a story about death, rebirth, and the possibility of communing with the dead. So it’s odd that Cosmatos, who met Jóhannsson only once, during the last few weeks of filming, speaks of his bond with the composer in almost mystical terms. “With some people you just feel like you’ve known them your whole life, and he was one of those people,” he says. “We just had a strange immediate connection, sort of like we were destined to encounter each other.”

“With some people you just feel like you’ve known them your whole life, and he was one of those people” – Panos Cosmatos, Mandy director

Jóhann Jóhannsson came of age in the Reykjavik scene of the 1980s, trying his hand at shoegaze (Daisy Hill Puppy Farm) and metal (Ham) before co-founding Kitchen Motors, a musical blurring boundaries between the rock, jazz and classical realms. His 00s run of solo releases took on an increasingly ambitious cast, with loss a recurring theme on richly textured albums like 2008’s Fordlandia, about Henry Ford’s failed rubber-plant utopia of the same name, and 2011’s The Miners’ Hymns, written for Bill Morrison’s documentary ode to the UK miners’ strike of the 1980s. Among his fans was French-Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, who tapped Jóhannsson to provide the score for his English-language debut, Prisoners, in 2013.

The pairing was inspired, Jóhannsson’s elegant score lending weight to a slow, suffocatingly grim thriller about a man consumed by his grief. Colin Stetson, who would later work with Jóhannsson on a handful of projects, remembers hearing it for the first time: “Tim Hecker and I were hanging out a few years ago, he’d just gotten wise to Jóhann’s music and heard his score for Prisoners. He put it on and we just blissed out on it; I was completely floored. It was serene and haunting, but also economical – it doesn’t do anything it doesn’t have to do. So much of film score tries to do all the work for everybody, to take interpretation out of the (picture), but Jóhann was able to take what to me felt like the perfect amount of score; it’s a real example of restraint in the artform. I hadn’t been moved like that by a piece of film music for so long.”

The film paved the way for two more collaborations with Villeneuve, 2014’s Sicario and 2016’s Arrival, cementing Jóhannsson’s place in the top tier of Hollywood film composers. For each, Villeneuve brought Jóhannsson into the fold from the beginning of the creative process, an unusual step that Husom credits with giving their work together so much of its power. “Denis had this unique way of inviting Jóhann into the process before he started shooting, and that never happens – usually you make your film and you’re like, ‘Who’s gonna make the music to put in the film?’” he says. “But Jóhann would be involved from day one because they wanted the music to be part of the storytelling.”

Moviemaking custom dictates that films are cut using ‘temp tracks’ – existing pieces of music used as a guide for mood or atmosphere – before composers are brought in replace them with original cues. “They wait until the last minute, call on a composer and have them replace music that has been Frankensteined in from all sorts of different places,” Stetson explains. “But actually, they tend to be (the same) few places. (Occasionally) there are these bright spots that blow up into the temp world and eke out their influence into everybody’s work. Hans Zimmer’s score for The Thin Red Line was one, and Jóhann’s score for Prisoners was another – it showed up everywhere. Most of the films I’ve done have temped in at least two or three of the cues from that film.”

Stetson cites the score’s economy as a model for his own forays into film work, including his sublimely creepy soundtrack for last year’s Hereditary. Through working with Jóhannsson on his scores for Arrival and last year’s Mary Magdalene, among others, he learned how to tailor his approach to suit the needs of any given scene. “That was a very important lesson for me,” he explains. “It’s about thinking ‘OK, well, if I take my ego out of the equation these aren’t the right things to support the scene. Jóhann would always see through that.”

“Jóhann was able to take what to me felt like the perfect amount of score; it’s a real example of restraint in the artform” – Colin Stetson, collaborator

Jóhannsson found a natural sparring partner in Stetson, a virtuoso saxophonist who uses breathing techniques to coax bizarre sounds from his instrument. Similarly, says Stetson, Jóhannsson had a flair for “finding the space between score and sound design, really exploring what it means to be music. Because ultimately a film score is sound that supports the narrative of a picture, and there are a lot of different ways to go about that.” On Sicario, he uses low brass rumbles to give a terse gangland thriller its undercurrent of existential dread, while his work on acclaimed sci-fi Arrival incorporates phonetic vocal sounds that reflect the characters’ attempts to decipher an alien language. On mother!, Darren Aronofsky gonzo frightfest of 2016, he composed an entire score only to decide the film was better off without it, incorporating aspects of his work into the film’s sound design.

Around the time he was working on mother!, Jóhannsson teamed with Villeneuve again for his highest-profile gig to date, a big-budget sequel to Blade Runner. At first glance, it was a dream ticket – the brightest soundtrack composer of his generation going head-to-head with Vangelis, the synth-music icon behind the score for Ridley Scott’s 1982 original – but somehow, the stars failed to align, and Jóhannsson was replaced on the project by Hans Zimmer.

According to Husom, it was a decision that most likely came down to box-office number-crunching. “The idea that Denis and the producers and everyone involved had was that the film would be better served by someone like Hans Zimmer, and what some people might call a truer Hollywood score,” he says. “It wasn’t that big of a deal for us: if that’s the kind of score that you want and Hans is the guy to do it, then it’s your movie, you guys do all the algorithms on who buys tickets, you know how much money you’ve spent on this film and how much you have to make to break even. You know, it’s a business, and you have to go take care of your business. So there were no hard feelings.”

“I think the only regret that existed between Denis and Jóhann was that chapter four wasn’t completed,” continues Husom, who is “100 per cent” certain the pair would have worked together again. “Because if you watch those three films back to back, there’s something extremely special there. But I do think that, had Jóhann still been alive today, we would have seen more things like MandyArrival and Sicario. There wouldn’t have been a whole lot of Blade Runner-y, bigger production stuff, because those are the things that might (have prevented him from) making the kind of music that might have been a little too adventurous for some.”

Tim Husom met Jóhannsson in 2008, when he invited the musician to join his fledgling film and TV soundtrack management company, Redbird. As Jóhannsson made strides in his new sideline profession, the pair devised strategies to get his work recognised during the industry awards season. They found success with The Theory of Everything, a more traditional, melodic score for Jóhannsson that won him his first Oscar nod as well as a Golden Globe in 2015. More nominations followed for his work on Arrival and Sicario, but the composer soon found the hobnobbing that came with the territory to be an unwelcome distraction.

“I do think that, had Jóhann still been alive today, we would have seen more things like MandyArrival and Sicario” – Tim Husom, Jóhannsson’s manager

“At some point between Sicario and Arrival, he straight-up asked me, ‘Can we not submit our names for these awards any more? It’s not in my comfort zone to do all that stuff.’ So I promised him I wouldn’t do it,” says Husom. That made life awkward when SpectreVision, Mandy’s financial backers, launched an outsider Oscars push for Jóhannsson’s soundtrack – “I had Jóhann in my head telling me not to do it!” says Husom – but in the end it didn’t matter, as Mandy’s low-key release strategy discounted the film from consideration.

After Jóhannsson’s death in February of last year, ruled as an accidental overdose of cocaine combined with prescription medication, Husom inked a deal with Deutsche Grammophon to produce a series of new releases. These will include a slew of back-catalogue reissues; the score for Last and First Men, a self-directed sci-fi film narrated by Tilda Swinton; and a choral recording of Drone Mass, an oratorio which premiered at the New York Met in 2015. There are also plans afoot to see Jóhannsson’s “intense” unused score for mother! released – though his work on Blade Runner 2049 looks unlikely to ever see light of day. “It was mostly idea-stage stuff, too raw to have been released,” says Husom.

In addition to the new releases, Husom is working with Jóhannsson’s family and his agent, Kevin Korn, on the Jóhann Jóhannsson Foundation, which will find new ways to honour the composer’s legacy. Among other things, the foundation wants to reach out to young creatives about the importance of maintaining a healthy work-life balance.

“The thing about Jóhann is he was a real workaholic,” says Husom, who remembers his friend as a “quiet, kind, extremely loving guy”. “He wanted to stay in his studio making music as long as he could; that’s all he wanted to do. And I think his personal life suffered from it – his health certainly suffered from it, because he didn’t rest. Sometimes Jóhann was glorified by (writers) and composers for his work ethic, but that glorification is misguided. You know, Jóhann Jóhannsson is dead because that’s all he did with his life. As a young composer you need to find a balance, you need to act like a normal human being, otherwise your body is going to get upset. And so that’s one of the things we’re trying to do.”

In his lifetime, Jóhannsson was a composer of extraordinary sensitivity, an artist whose fierce intelligence and refusal to tell his audience what to think made many of his peers, in the words of Portishead musician and composer Geoff Barrow, “realise their shit was stock”. Above all, perhaps, he was an artist who knew instinctively that silence is a music of its own. You just have to know how to listen.