Few threads in the music industry are as much fun to tug as the one tied to the career of Jon Brion. At once a respected recording artist, influential producer, and award-winning film composer, Brion has assembled a collection of projects that would serve as the envy of a dozen Los Angeles musicians. He has produced albums by notable songwriters Fiona Apple and Elliott Smith, helped produce albums by mainstream juggernauts such as Kanye West and Katy Perry, and even shaped the careers of men like Charlie Kauffman and Michel Gondry through his award-winning film scores. And this weekend at BAM, Brion brings together the best of each world for a Wordless Music presentation of Punch-Drunk Love, his most recent (but not, we hope, final) collaboration with filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson.
While a live performance may seem to be the antithesis of film composition, this screening may actually represent a return to the film’s musical roots. In a 2003 interview with the A.V. Club, Brion described the scoring process as deeply collaborative, with the composer, director, and star working together prior to the production to build the film’s recurring musical motif. According to Brion, the songwriting method involved live improvisation while Anderson screened the rushes, with Brion responding to the director’s emotional reactions to the footage and music “as if I was accompanying a silent film.” This helps frame the duality at the heart of Brion’s music: he may have composed the soundtrack as a response to the needs of one person, but in doing so, Brion found the necessary emotional language to accompany the work of art. Punch-Drunk Love, therefore, speaks to the complexity of Brion’s music, touching on both his preference for improvisation and the emotions at work in his songs.
The need for spontaneity in Brion’s music dates back to the earliest days of his career. As an adolescent, Brion’s parents were supportive of his passions but attempted to encourage interests for their son outside of the music industry. “’Ok, we know you love playing drums, and that’s great if you want to do that,’” Brion recalled during a 2004 interview with NPR Music. “’We have no problem with it, but you might want to have other things you can do just in case that doesn’t work out.’ So I nodded and took it all in, and proceeded to make sure I knew how to play piano and guitar and that I was writing songs as well as just playing them.” From here, Brion built his reputation as a multi-instrumentalist and someone capable of collapsing genres or eras of pop music on a fly. His one-man shows at nightclubs in Los Angeles and New York City made Brion something of a local event in and of himself; without a set list, Brion is as prone to mashup the styles and affections of two separate artists as he is to play covers of his own favorite songs.
This flexibility helped ensure that Brion would succeed within the music industry, first as a touring musician with bands like ‘Til Tuesday and later as a producer for Los Angeles-based artists. It also allowed Brion to move into the film industry with relative ease. His earliest films were done in collaboration with a young Paul Thomas Anderson and singer-songwriter Michael Penn on the soundtracks to Hard Eight and Boogie Nights. After working directly with Anderson on his next two films, Brion would branch out in 2004 with perhaps his most successful year as a composer, penning the scores to both Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and David O. Russell’s I Heart Huckabees. “So many composers I know just throw their hands up and say, you know what? You can’t have all these,” Russell told NPR. “You can’t be quixotic and wistful and joyous. It can’t be all those things.”
Brion, of course, is different. His songs are inherently contradictory: his lyrics—often hinting at the depression or grief immediately following a failed relationship—may suggest a place of deep melancholy, but Brion’s melodies possess a vibrancy that speaks to the endurance of the human spirit. It’s a tough balancing act to maintain, but filmmakers who seek out Brion do so for his ability to set a delicate tone for their movies. When asked to describe the composer’s contributions to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, for example, director Michel Gondry described Brion’s music as both “populist” and “specific and original,” noting that Brion shared the same dissatisfaction with the world possessed by the director and his screenwriter. This alludes to music that exists within a specific time and a place while still connecting with an audience at large. Brion’s scores are both localized and universal, melancholy and optimistic, connecting the emotional context of a scene to the broader experiences that the audience brings with them to the theater.
No song better captures this than “Here We Go,” Brion’s unused credits song from the Punch-Drunk Love soundtrack. The lyrics alone are bittersweet. Brion sings of isolation and uncertainty, voicing a fragile hope that someone can still form a connection with a kindred spirit in this cold world. It is the music, then, that makes “Here We Go” a song about both optimism and fear. There is a warmth in Brion’s voice and a confidence in the melody that offers hope for the future. Like many of Brion’s original compositions, “Here We Go” is also a waltz, and the steady tempo and gentle piano carry the song forward even as the lyrics suggest a person too paralyzed by fear and indecision to move forward. The song doesn’t shy away from the sadness and grief of the past, nor does it offer false hope for the future; but there is hope, and Brion’s music, as always, finds the human touches in the middle of it all.
Quixotic, wistful, and indeed joyous, Brion’s contributions to the Punch-Drunk Love soundtrack make up just a small portion of his beautiful body of music. Those lucky enough to have tickets to Saturday’s screening should be treated to the perfect synthesis of music and moment. And those without? Thankfully, we have no shortage of recordings to familiarize ourselves with a great artist.