top of page
  • 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.

14,709 views10 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Hold on!

10 comentarios

Jeff Hijlkema
Jeff Hijlkema
27 abr 2022

Impressive, sensitive inside information you gave us Bowen Staines...

It seems to wipe out every assumption we had over here.

Me gusta

Bowen Staines
Bowen Staines
26 abr 2022

You are wrong about Hollywood killing him. His life is a dark story. He was a very depressed person, who went through probably every therapist in Iceland twice-over, and ultimately turned to alcohol in an attempt to govern his demons, whatever they were. But then he drove drunk one night about ten years ago, got into an accident, and killed three people.. the courts ordered him to a minimum security rehab facility about 30 minutes outside of Reykjavík, and this dude was sober as FUCK the whole time (you can come and go on weekends, personal accountability is a large part of the program), but he tried really, REALLY hard, and did his best to compartmentalize all of that horrible…

Me gusta
Queen Antifa
Queen Antifa
30 oct 2022
Contestando a

That hurts like a mofo to read. I attempted to complete suicide later the very same year. I wish he was still here. I've been thinking about him pretty much every other day since his death. Thank you for sharing ♥️

Me gusta

Jeff Hijlkema
Jeff Hijlkema
28 nov 2021

Thanks Kevin, you wrote what was my instant thought at the time... Was he sucked into a, for him, destructive constellation? His music, potentional and conceptional view will live on...

Composed a memorial service back then:

In Memoriam Jóhann Jóhannsson // a 3-part musical service - YouTube

Me gusta

07 abr 2021

I would say that another event that may have tipped him over the edge was losing the Oscar nomination for his score to Arrival. Max Richter's piece in the Main and End TItles was considered "underscore" and therefore disqualified Jóhannsson's score from the Best Original Score category. It's awful - "Temp Love" ruins composers' lives.

Me gusta

Paul Vogt
Paul Vogt
28 feb 2021

What a pity, I had no idea he was dead. It's interesting that Vangelis also went through the ringer for a different Bladerunner. I would bet the music was tremendous and I hope we hear it, was it released? Life is a precious thing we must value it. How sad.

Me gusta
bottom of page