In many ways, Radiohead’s soundtrack history mirrors their dramatic musical arc as a group.
So, it’s interesting that as the group celebrates 25 years since its debut record, frontman Thom Yorke has stepped into his most ambitious cinematic effort, scoring Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria remake.
But let’s go back to the beginning.
It’s easy to forget, sometimes, that Radiohead didn’t emerge fully-formed. The band’s debut Pablo Honey, was a pretty straight up guitar record. It spawned a massive hit in “Creep,” but it planted few seeds that the band would become as sonically deep, diverse and, at times, divisive as it has over the past quarter century.
This showed in the band’s early cinematic forays, lending “Creep” to the 1994 slacker-com S.F.W. and even contributing an acoustic version of “Fake Plastic Trees” to the Clueless soundtrack. The latter is interesting because it is by far the most commercial-friendly effort the band has contributed to, but also came as the band’s first sonic shift was taking place. The band’s sophomore effort The Bends (home to ‘Fake Plastic Trees’) was still a guitar record at heart, but no one was about to mistake it for the kind of BritPop outing that contemporaries like Blur and Pulp were creating, nor was it built to produce a hit of ‘Creep’s magnitude. Jonny Greenwood’s menacing guitar sounds paved a road for a more sinister and haunted vocal from Yorke and moved the band out of the one-hit wonder conversation.
But it’s what happens immediately after The Bends – on screen – that tipped a more dramatic shift.
One of the bigger soundtracks of the 90s, William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet pounced on an in-transition Radiohead to its own advantage. Early on in the film, it’s The Bends b-side ‘Talk Show Host’ that sets the scene, but it’s the sweeping ‘Exit Music (For a Film)’ that is the true tell. Starting as a simple acoustic ballad, the second-half kick of strings showed the sonic expansion that the band would drop a year later on OK Computer.
The band pushed their limits with multi-movement-type songs like ‘Paranoid Android,’ and ‘Karma Police’ and veered away from caring about radio-friendliness earning Pink Floyd-level adoration for their willingness to experiment and grow as musicians and songwriters. The band went even further on its subsequent companion records Kid A and Amnesiac, avoiding big-time soundtrack contributions for the first few years of the 21st century, with the possible exception of Yorke’s assist to Björk for Dancer in the Dark.
However, the band takes an interesting turn after it finished touring 2003’s Hail to the Thief… separation and expansion.
No, the band didn’t split, but Yorke and Greenwood make time to branch out on their own. Yorke’s 2006 solo effort The Eraser provides another major end-credits contribution leaving audiences to marvel at The Prestige’s suddenly-untangled web to the strains of ‘Analyse.’ Greenwood, meanwhile, jumps head-first into scoring and composes an Oscar-nominated opus for There Will Be Blood.
It’s at this point the band hits its latest and most mature cinematic act: Full-on collaboration.
Greenwood continued to work with Paul Thomas Anderson, scoring his next three films (getting robbed of another Oscar for his sublime work on Phantom Thread). Anderson returned the favour, directing three videos for Radiohead’s 2016 record A Moon Shaped Pool. The band’s sound also reached a new maturity during this period, finding the balance between their turn-of-the-century experimentation and the rock songwriting prowess that drew more mainstream audiences on The Bends. The band’s 2007 album In Rainbows is – for many – the direct mid-point between the band’s two calling cards.
Ina CanCon twist, the band also seems to be answering Denis Villeneuve’s calls, lending tracks to both Incendies and Prisoners.
Which brings it all back to Suspiria. Yorke takes on not only a beloved cinematic remake, but also a massive cult score. However, instead of trying to replicate the menace of Goblin’s guitar-and-synth original, he brings his own brand of haunt. The creaks and wails one might expect for a Suspiria remake are present in tracks like ‘Olga’s Destruction’ and the introductory ‘A Storm That Took Everything,’ but so too are some fully-realized Yorke songs, like ‘Unmade,’ and the score’s lead single ‘Suspirium.’
The film marks another step the band’s cinematic output, as Guadagnino builds on the English-language success of films like Call Me By Your Name and Yorke and Greenwood continue to evolve as composers.