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  • Writer's pictureKevin Keller

Did Hollywood Kill Jóhann Jóhannsson?

Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, 1969-2018

This must be said first: I loved Jóhann Jóhannsson’s music. It was unconventional, experimental, and deeply creative, just like it’s creator. While I never met or knew him personally, I felt loosely connected to him, in that we were both known for combining classical sounds and modern electronics. We even had mutual friends, and worked with a number of the same musicians.

By all accounts, Jóhann was humble and intelligent, and he approached music with a childlike enthusiasm. Growing up in Reykjavik, Iceland, he was often inspired by the environment there, saying once, “There’s big skies… the buildings are low, the landscape is spread out… it’s expansive.” You could always hear that in his music – the expansiveness, the big sky.

Jóhann was an artist in the truest sense of the word. Everything he did pushed the medium of music further along. He wasn’t concerned with sounding popular, or being “commercial”. This is why his film scores, especially those done in collaboration with director Denis Villeneuve, were such a revelation.

Jóhann's approach to film scoring was unconventional, and often unexpected. This is what made him such a singular talent in the world of film. It’s also what made him an odd choice for big budget studio films. Somehow, he managed to maintain his artistic integrity, often in the face of studio interference, and his scores are among some of the most memorable of the past 5 years. Most notable are his scores for Sicario and Arrival.

Knowing little about him as a person, I still felt like I understood him somehow, the way that many fans feel about their favorite artists. I wanted nothing more than for him to continue to make beautiful, strange, evocative music, and to continue pushing the medium while remaining happy, humble, and content. When I heard that he had decided to move to Los Angeles, I thought, “Oh, is that really a good idea?” I understood that his career as a film composer in Hollywood might benefit from living there, but I was concerned that this might negatively affect his creativity.

Instead, something else happened.

After having worked with Denis Villeneuve on “Prisoners”, “Sicario”, and “Arrival”, it was announced that the pair would be working together again, this time on the long-awaited Blade Runner 2049. I was absolutely stoked to hear this news! Like many other fans of Jóhannsson, I wondered what he would bring to this score, knowing that it would be something truly spectacular. After he delivered the score for “Blade Runner 2049”, the unthinkable happened: the score was rejected by the studio, execs saying it was “too experimental”, and “not commercial enough”.

Wait. What?!  Wasn’t that the whole reason he was hired to compose this score?

Contractual obligations forbade him from talking about the “Blade Runner 2049” score and the reasons for his being replaced by Hans Zimmer, but I have to imagine that this really must have stung. Jóhannsson and Villeneuve had developed such an amazing chemistry, and such amazing work, that to have this score pulled just before its release must have been disheartening, if not heartbreaking.

Still, the ever-humble and ambitious Jóhann continued on, and was soon hired to compose the score for a Disney film called Christopher Robin. Disney certainly has a reputation for being very “hands-on”, and they certainly aren’t known for releasing product that is “unconventional”, “non-commercial”, or “experimental”. How would Jóhann Jóhannsson fit into the Disney mold?

Under tremendous pressure, especially in the wake of the “Blade Runner 2049” debacle, Jóhann plunged headlong into his score for “Christopher Robin”, spending long days, nights, and weekends composing the score. By all accounts, things seemed, at least on the surface, to be going well.

But then, in early February 2018, Jóhann stopped answering the phone at the Berlin apartment where he was working. After a couple days, the police were called, and when they broke into his apartment, they found him dead, at the young age of 48. Toxicology tests and an autopsy revealed the cause of death to be an “accidental overdose of cocaine”.

Had the pressures of Hollywood, along with the heartbreak of “Blade Runner 2049”, proven to be too much for this sensitive, thoughtful man from Iceland?

Though we’ll never know for certain, it remains a horrible tragedy that the world lost such a beautifully talented artist and human being. Jóhann Jóhannsson's work will live on, and I have no doubt that he changed the face of film music forever.

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