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    The Oppenheimer movie was one of the most anticipated films of summer 2023, and it’s been a huge hit at the box office (no doubt helped along by the ‘phenomenon). The three-hour-long biopic of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the so-called ‘father of the atomic bomb’ directed by Christopher Nolan is hugely powerful – does it have a soundtrack to match?

    For over a decade, Christopher Nolan’s films, including Inception, Interstellar and Dunkirk, have been characterized by Hans Zimmer’s sweeping soundscapes – not least that iconic, thunderous bwahhhhh noise that was so suited to epic action on an IMAX screen, and which came to redefine ‘the Hollywood sound’.

    Who Is Doing the Soundtrack for Oppenheimer?

    The Hollywood Reporter described it as an, ‘extraordinarily forceful, almost wall-to-wall-score’, whilst Collider praised the ‘ever-present score [which] accompanies nearly every moment of the film, knowing exactly when to pull back, or when to provoke the audience with the sounds of a ticking clock, or static underneath the onslaught of an orchestra fully enveloping the viewer in sound. Nolan and van Hoytema’s visuals are always impressive, but it’s Göransson’s score that takes Oppenheimer to another level and continues to prove that he’s one of the most exciting composers working in film today.’

    The Oppenheimer music composer is Swedish maestro Ludwig Göransson, who has won an Oscar and a Grammy award for the Black Panther soundtrack (he’s the man behind both that and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever).

    Based on the 2005 biography American Prometheus, the film chronicles the career of American theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy), taking him from his early studies in Cambridge and Germany to his direction of the Manhattan Project during World War II and the development of the atomic bomb at Los Alamos, New Mexico, through to his eventual fall from grace due to his security hearing in 1954.

    Göransson revealed to Vanity Fair that, ‘It’s definitely a different personal journey for me, to do a first-person score, where you do everything from his eyes and from his mind. It was draining, but very interesting to think about too.’

    Oppenheimer marks Göransson’s second project with director Chris Nolan, following 2020’s Tenet. Although the movie is epic in its scope, it’s also focused on Oppenheimer’s life and emotional state – ‘you’re constantly trying to emote what he’s feeling on the screen.’

    The Oppenheimer Movie Soundtrack

    The story’s intensity often makes the score relentless, with a wealth of strings – particularly violins – together with some unexpected sounds such as ticking clocks and a repeated use of stomping feet during key scenes. described it as, ‘a dense, bold, violin-led soundscape that is a crucial component of Christopher Nolan’s latest opus.’

    In terms of Oppenheimer music, Nolan was keen on the idea of experimenting with violins – and Göransson was helped out by the fact that his wife, Serena McKinney, is an accomplished violinist. He worked on different violin sounds ‘to really capture the emotional spectrum of Oppenheimer’s character’, and then fused them with modern production and synthesisers. The synths were brought in ‘to symbolise the impending doom.’

    Why the violin? As Göransson explained to, ‘Oppenheimer was a genius with a lot of complex layers underneath. With a solo violin, you can play the most beautiful, romantic vibrato. But then if you press down the bow heavily and change the speed, you can make something horrific, manic or neurotic in a split second… Chris and I were constantly talking about going in and out of different emotions.’

    An interesting aspect of the score is that there’s no percussion; Göransson thought that it would lessen the impact of the stomping, and of the bomb itself.

    One of his biggest challenges was the scene where Oppenheimer is giving a speech to his team at Los Alamos after they’ve dropped the first bomb on Hiroshima. ‘Something is shifting inside of him. And I feel like what was going on, how Cillian Murphy captured that in that performance, how it goes to something nightmarish, it almost transfers to a horror movie. And how they did that with effects and visual effects and sound, that was one of the most difficult things to score because the emotion is so complex there. You don’t want the music to feel what the audience is seeing, you want the music to embolden what he’s going through.’

    Göransson revealed that he and Nolan worked on that particular scene and its music for nine months – and that ‘it wasn’t until three days before finishing the movie that we had a eureka moment and figured out how to put music to his emotions.’

    Other characters in the film have different instruments at the core of their themes. Oppenheimer’s wife, Kitty, played by Emily Blunt, has a theme that’s piano-led, while Levi Strauss (Robert Downey Jr.), the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, has a harp, which ‘symbolises the mystery of his character, and his real intentions.’

    Göransson describes the soundtrack as, ‘such a dense score, but at some points it’s also very simple. And that’s part of the filmmaking – how to understand where you can bring in more, when to take back and how effective it is.’

    One of the most significant tracks, in terms of its technical difficulty, is ‘Can You Hear the Music’, which accompanies footage of atoms and fluorescent lights. Göransson explains that, ‘there’s a violin line that consists of a Hexatronic scale, which is six notes. When it goes down, it goes faster. When it goes up again, it goes slower. When it goes down, it goes even faster. So it’s an arpeggio, up and down. It has a total of 21 tempo changes. The piece ends three times faster than when it started.

    When it came time to record that with a live string orchestra, I thought that was going to be impossible for them to perform. So first we recorded it in sections. We did four bars, we stopped, we did four more bars, and I just taped it together. It sounded cool, but also not real. Serena has been playing with that group for 20 years, and she knows how incredible they are. She was like, “What if you try to do this in one take, and you just give them a new tempo in their ears before the tempo changes?” When I heard it for the first time, it breathed new life into that piece. Then, obviously, there’s a bunch of production in it too, with synths playing in different metric modulations under it. Altogether, I felt like that visual that I’d seen in the beginning came to life.’

    Having assumed that the piece as he’d written it was ‘unplayable’, the orchestra spent three days on it before managing to pull it off.

    Oppenheimer Soundtrack Tracklist

    1. ‘Fission’
    2. ‘Can You Hear the Music’
    3. ‘A Lowly Shoe Salesman’
    4. ‘Quantum Mechanics’
    5. ‘Gravity Swallows Light’
    6. ‘Meeting Kitty’
    7. ‘Groves’
    8. ‘Manhattan Project’
    9. ‘American Prometheus’
    10. ‘Atmospheric Ignition’
    11. ‘Los Alamos’
    12. ‘Fusion’
    13. ‘Colonel Pash’
    14. ‘Theorists’
    15. ‘Ground Zero’
    16. ‘Trinity’
    17. ‘What We Have Done’
    18. ‘Power Stays in the Shadows’
    19. ‘The Trial’
    20. ‘Dr Hill’
    21. ‘Kitty Comes to Testify’
    22. ‘Something More Important’
    23. ‘Destroyer of Worlds’
    24. ‘Oppenheimer’

    The trailer uses elements of Göransson’s score, combined with a subtle nod to the ‘stomps’ on the soundtrack, the clicking of a Geiger counter, some epic slams, and strategic uses of silence to symbolise the shift from Oppenheimer being hailed as a hero to the later courtroom scenes.

    More From the Movies

    Want more movie-and-music inspiration? Check out the bestselling movie soundtracks, and explore the work of the top movie composers working in the industry. Or, to lighten the intensity after you’ve watched the Oppenheimer movie, indulge yourself with some iconic love songs from movie soundtracks.

    Looking for music to license for your movie project? Harness the power of the perfect soundtrack with music that resonates, or capture that Hollywood sound with blockbuster composer Lorne Balfe’s collection. We have thousands of tracks which are ideal for film scores and trailers in our catalogue.

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