Culture Critic Naomi Simpson reviews ‘There Will Be Blood’ at Symphony Hall, where the 2007 film was accompanied by the London Contemporary Orchestra
In the age of big budget cinema screened in soulless multiplexes, a certain level of the mundane has crept into our experience of viewing films. Why wouldn’t we choose to sit at home, duvet-swaddled and tea in hand in front of Netflix? At a time in which the soul of film is moving from the communal screens of a community cinema to the individual screen of a laptop, something radical is needed to enliven the viewing experience and bring a glimpse of grandeur back to the silver screen. What better way to re-invigorate an audience’s sense of what cinema can be than to follow the example of the London Contemporary Orchestra (LCO), who this Monday performed Jonny Greenwood’s soundtrack to There Will Be Blood as the film was projected above them?
Released in 2007, Paul Thomas Anderson’s film is widely considered to be one of the finest films of the 2000s, and with good reason. Portraying the rise and demise of a self-made oil man – Daniel Day-Lewis’ Daniel Plainview – the film catapults the audience into the cutthroat reality of the early 20th century American oil business. With plenty to say about the costs of both environmental and human exploitation, the film is a dark counter-argument to the narrative of the virtuous American entrepreneur. Aside from the masterclass in menace given by Day-Lewis and Paul Dano’s electric portrayal of the preacher Eli Sunday, the film’s undeniable strength is its soundtrack. Composed by Jonny Greenwood, with whom the LCO have a close working relationship, the soundtrack uses a reliance on strings to heighten the film’s already tense atmosphere. At points, the score actually appears to take on the sort of buzzing and discordant resonance of a machine starting up, allowing the viewer to remember that the onscreen action is fuelled by the onset of industrialisation and economic opportunism. The sparse dialogue of the film allows for the score to literally speak for the narrative and the LCO proved to be truly worthy spokespeople.
Watching a performance which was both live and recorded was a novel experience, yes, but it was far from the simple gimmick it could have been. It would be impossible to watch a film like There Will Be Blood without being stunned by the visual storytelling, but how often do you think of yourself as actually listening to a film as well? Having the orchestra present made it essential for the audience to listen as intently as we watched, opening up new moments of the film and reminding us that a film is not just Hollywood names and expensive stunts. Particularly interesting was what this new focus on sound did for our understanding of Daniel Planview’s son H.W.’s sudden deafness as a result of an explosion at an oil derrick. This is another importance of the soundtrack to the film, in how it emphasises the isolation and emotional distance which HW suffers after losing his hearing, as he no longer has access to the wealth of human emotion we interpret from sound.
In their efforts to unite the live and the recorded, the LCO’s passionate playing maximised the power of both. At times they took on a role of secondary importance as the narrative raced ahead and the soundtrack graciously supported it, at times they charged on, directing the emotion of the film with a remarkable confidence. A thoroughly rewarding and invigorating viewing experience, the performance gave back to cinema the notion of it as a performance art to be enjoyed actively. In such a location as the Birmingham Symphony Hall, the idea that your attention might be diverted by some social media app mid-film seemed ludicrous. This performance gave cinema back its stature, showing the audience the magic that it first held when to watch a film was a cultural event, not just one of the many tabs open on a browser.