The first person to receive praise for a great film is often an actor. And why not when they are indeed the faces that fill a million billboards and bus stop canopies. A strong case can be made for the director, or if a critic is feeling exceptionally inclusive, perhaps even the screenwriter. Of the hundreds of movies that I’ve watched since my adolescent self knew how to work a VCR, there have been very few times when I’ve thought the shining star was the composer – until I watched The Theory of Everything.
This is not to say that the film’s composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, a man whose name is really too awesome not to know, is the only star in the film. Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of astrophysicist Stephen Hawking is nothing short of brilliant, and Felicity Jones shines nearly as bright as his wife, Jane Hawking. Director James Marsh successfully contrasts the intimacies of young love with larger than life scientific discoveries, and screenwriter Anthony McCarten brings a simplistic charm to theories outside many viewers’ comfort zones. And yet it feels necessary—especially given that composers usually fall below the line—to focus on Jóhannsson and his success depicting Hawking’s incredible life story, from his formative years at Cambridge in 1963 to his declined knighthood in the late 1990s.
Like Hawking, the music score is bold, original, and at times even obnoxious. Take the opening scene for example: a light piano melody introduces what deceptively appears to be a slow, whimsical tale when Bam! an explosive drum erupts and the audience is quickly wound back to Hawking’s fast-paced adolescence. At one point he’s racing down the road on a bicycle, then wooing Jane over his mother’s “cracking roast” (that’s about as charming as he gets), then kissing Jane under the stars, all while making promising strides as an initially unfocused physicist. The scenes race at warp speed until Hawking’s body pulls a coup d’état that sends him crashing towards a painful reality. As if in shock, the music stops just after his head hits the concrete and remains muted until after Hawking’s shocking diagnosis (motor neuron disease) is spoken. The doctor says, “The brain isn’t affected. Your thoughts won’t change. It’s just that, well, eventually no one will know what they are.”
From this point on, the music stops being the carefree accompaniment riding next to Stephen on his bicycle and becomes a vehicle to express all of the emotions that Stephen, and those around him, will soon lose the ability to fully express. In effect, Jóhannsson’s sonic treatment creates from both diegetic and non-diegetic sounds a passionate, protective character in its own right.
The score (currently playing in my head on repeat) is comprised of 27 songs whose run time is just 10 minutes short of an hour. The pieces range from the explosive lyrical ballad “Cambridge, 1963” which opens the film to more somber pieces whose tempos match the Hawking’s marital frustrations. There are songs that engage with diegetic sound particularly well, which are tailored around Hawking’s “ah-ha” moments, and songs that simply enjoy tinkering along during piano lessons with the Hawking children. The final song of the film, “Arrival of the Birds,” in its brief 2:30 minute length beautifully accompanies a reverse montage of the entire movie. Don’t be surprised if you feel a little moisture on your cheek when it’s over—like the title suggests, it is everything.
There are few places where the music detracts from any given scene, and unlike Stephen’s nonstop chatter about black holes and such, it knows when to take a backseat to someone else. Notably, for example, there’s no music in any of the hospital scenes. Yet, as soon as the news is delivered, there’s a song waiting just around the corner to help us digest what has been said. Indeed, as much as this narrative focuses on the accomplishments of Hawking and his complicated relationship with Jane, the score powerfully addresses everyone, includes everyone, and (unlike some of the characters) stays present until the end. No matter your personal opinion of Stephen Hawking or his theory of everything, it is definitely worth watching this film and granting yourself the opportunity to engage with its triumphant soundtrack.
With a musical score that’s out of this world, The Theory of Everything is sure to impress.