Wednesday, May 20, 2009

On Jon Brion

One of the major regrets from my recent trip to sunny Los Angeles was not taking advantage of the recurring Friday night show that film composer Jon Brion hosts at The Largo. Sometimes a solo show, and other times with unexpected 'friends' playing along, all the chatter I've heard about this event seems like a joyous occasion.

I first came into the musical stylings of Brion through the films of P.T. Anderson. Thematically bold and visually arresting, Anderson's films also contained a pulsating heart and tempo provided by the (often) otherworldly and esoteric sounds of Brion. As a member of several 80's new wave bands such as The Bats and 'Til Tuesday with Aimee Mann, Brion eventually settled for session work. His collaborations with Anderson (which, I feel, hit a high note with 1999's "Magnolia) immediately pushed him into the ranks of the great experimental musical composers. Since then, Brion has gone on to create the soundtracks for Michel Gondry's "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind", Charlie Kaufman's "Synechdoce New York" and mainstream fare such as "Step Brothers".

At times lush... at times bizarre (as in "Punch Drunk Love"), Brion's music seems to key into the subconscious musings of the film's various troubled characters. It seems no surprise that most of Brion's music accompanies characters who live (or retreat) inside their own minds. Brion's music feels like the contemplative tunes that we hum inside our heads to wile away the hours and minutes.

It can be tense and violent:

It can be mournful and steeped in regret:

It can instill melancholy or remind us of home:

And it can certainly feel light on its feet:

But, Brion's best work has to be his latest. Charlie Kaufman's "Synechdoce New York" is a.... heavy film to say the least. Infuriating, dense, playful and supremely in love with its own excess, it lands somewhere between colossal failure and preeminent American art house genius. I still haven't figured it out yet after two viewings. But, on the second viewing (after I knew what was coming) it began to crystallize a bit and I felt something precisely at the point that Philip Seymour Hoffman's unending artistic gesture folds in on itself and his doppelganger (Tom Noonan) re-enacts a fateful moment in Hoffman's own life. What follows the tragedy is extreme humor ("but I didn't actually jump!") and Kaufman strikes at the deep marrow of living, growing old and facing ourselves in the mirror. It's quite moving, supported by the aching tune of Jon Brion that begins to underscore the remainder of the film:

This is a real soundtrack. Music that deepens and enriches the image. I could listen to this theme over and over (and already have). Among film composers, only a select few have the power to elicit distinct emotions separate from the image. It's a great power to have, and Jon Brion exacts this power with each and every film he tackles. And as for the live show in Los Angeles, there will be more trips lined up in the future and hopefully he'll be right there for the next one hundred Friday nights.

No comments: