Randy Newman could do it. So could George Gershwin and Danny Elfman. Mark Mothersbaugh did it for a while. But it takes a rare kind of composer — one afflicted with a sort of a left-brain, right-brain aesthetic schizophrenia — to be equally talented at writing hooky pop songs and broad film scores, and occasionally doing both at once.
You know Jon Brion, even if you don’t know his name. Rather, you know his music: Brion is the producer/composer for offbeat films such as Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia and Punch-Drunk Love, Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and David O. Russell’s recent I (Heart) Huckabees.
Huckabees is something different for Brion — a score that, unlike the expansive charts in Magnolia and Eternal Sunshine, relies heavily on the hook-driven pop-song format. The sound track, as song-driven as it is, works as a stand-alone Brion solo record. It was an approach that he and director Russell discovered together, during improv scoring sessions in the screening room.
A film sound track “has to work as a cohesive whole, so the director is really in charge of what gets chosen to be in the movie,” Brion says. “But in the creative act of coming up with individual pieces, you work how you work. For me, that involves treating the film like I’m a silent movie pianist: I play along with what’s happening onscreen, and when I hit on something the director likes, those are the things I build on.”
Brion, who was limbering up his composing brain while Huckabees unrolled above him, began running through some small melodic lines on the keyboard, and happened to play a line from an unreleased original song.
“And it was like the classic moment: David goes, ‘Wait, what was that?’ I said, ‘No, that’s just an old song of mine I was playing to warm up.’ And he says, ‘Can we hear that with picture?’ So we rolled the film, and I played it again, and we both started cracking up. It sounded so un-film-like, but it worked.”
It seems the perfect composition process for a film so concerned with questions of serendipity and coincidence; and Brion’s score, direct and hook-driven, plays like a discrete character within the film, commenting on and weaving through the on-screen action. It was an approach that Brion, who’d long been dissatisfied with the bland character of contemporary film scores, was eager to try.
“There was a time when you heard a movie score, and there was no question what the center was” he says. “Listen to The Pink Panther or The Godfather; that music’s not just wallpaper. It’s right in front of you, it’s inescapable. And I started doing these kind of Jungian experiments [with Russell]. I’d pick an unreleased song of mine, one that I knew had lyrics that complemented the on-screen action, and throw that melody in with three other melodies. I’d play all four for him, and every single time he picked the one that, in my mind, was linked thematically or narratively to the film.”
Oddly enough, given its lighthearted core, the structure of the Huckabees score sharply recalls the sparse, muscular music of Ennio Morricone, whose compositions for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and A Fistful of Dollars are pop culture references all by themselves. That balance between the focused melody and the expansive underscoring is something Brion hasn’t had much of a chance to do. Magnolia was vast and sweeping, and Eternal Sunshine was swirling and trippy, but Huckabees is a lightly stated affair, as satisfying as a good joke told quickly and with dramatic economy.
And, like a good joke, the pleasure of the Huckabees sound track derives from its balance of structure and freewheeling invention.
“From the techniques I developed as a record producer,” Brion says, “I got accustomed to leaving the tape on all the time, so when accidents happen, you have them. Rather than try to relearn what the accident was, you’ve got the actual moment. The energy that emerges from that is incredible, like a weird little explosion. Once you have that, you can put a framework around it, so that if you need more structure, you can build one up around the song. I try to keep improv foremost in the process as much as possible, so that the first version where I played something right is preserved on the tape.
“I shouldn’t even say ‘played it right.’ I should say, ‘the moment when something happened that made me happy.’”Eric Waggoner is a freelance writer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org