When first watching James Marsh’s biopic The Theory of Everything, which follows the rise of Stephen Hawking (portrayed by Eddie Redmayne) as a groundbreaking physicist-cosmologist who slowly becomes crippled by ALS, it’s easy to mistake the film for a different period than the three decades during which it takes place—the 1960s, ’70s and the ’80s. Like Howards End and The King’s Speech, the British sensibility of courtship and hardship are just some of the foundations in Theory, which are throwbacks to another era.
One of the key cinematic elements in Theory that props this period atmosphere is Johann Johannsson’s score, which specifically harps on neo-classical themes more than the decades’ respective earmark sounds of the British invasion, punk music and synthpop.
“The music had to be timeless,” says Johannsson about Theory’s score. “Time is a huge motif in the film, which is colorful, and the music had to reflect that.”
As such, Johannsson settled on the piano as the chief instrument to express the emotions of Hawking and his wife Jane (portrayed by Felicity Jones).
“It’s a very expressive instrument, but it is precise,” adds the Icelandic composer, who lives in Berlin. “It has a mathematical-like quality, which reflects the core of the film.” While Johannsson played some piano on the score—recorded at London’s Abbey Road studios—the instrument was chiefly played by Scottish pianist Tom Poster, who performed along with a 65-piece orchestra.
One of the more prominent areas where Johannsson used piano was during the opening cue of the film, titled “Cambridge 1963,” during which we hear a four-note key sequence that is then echoed vibrantly by the orchestra. It proved quintessential for the composer when it came to capturing Hawking’s lively college day spirit: We see Hawking on his bicycle, gleefully speeding through the streets.
“It’s a kinetic, energetic track which becomes the building block of the score,” adds Johannsson.
In addition to capturing Hawking’s wonder with the universe musically, Johannsson also needed to portray the trying relationship between the Hawkings as they grappled with the physicist’s deteriorating health. A three-quarter-time piece, which sounds akin to a waltz, was used in the cue “Domestic Pressures,” which was played over the montage during which Hawking’s friend Brian (Harry Lloyd) is carrying him upstairs. The scene segues to Jane showing Hawking his first electric chair, and then we see her mounting frustration over her inability to deal with her husband’s condition. Overall, the assumption would seem that the music for a biopic about a legendary physicist whose body becomes withered by ALS would strike a downbeat, tragic note. Hardly so.
“There is a sense of hope and joyfulness that reflects Stephen Hawking’s life and his attitude toward it,” says Johannsson. “His life is full of wonder and amazement for the universe. It’s a zest for life and it was important that the music reflect that.”