It’s time for the Academy to recognize the work of one of Hollywood’s most talented film composers.
Given everything going on in the world of entertainment these days, you’d be forgiven for not noticing a piece of news last week that made my whole month. In celebration of Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film, Phantom Thread, film collectibles giant Mondo announced that it would be releasing the full soundtrack and score to Anderson’s Magnolia later this month. And with all due respect to the wonderful Aimee Mann, this serves as a nice little feather in the cap of composer Jon Brion, who has to be enjoying the fact that two of his 2017 films – Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird and Craig Johnson’s Wilson – are potential contenders for the Best Original Score category at the Academy Awards. This would right an egregious Oscar wrong in Hollywood’s last two decades: namely, that not a single Brion score has been so much as nominated.
This isn’t the first time I’ve sung the praises of Jon Brion to anyone and everyone who would listen. Hell, this isn’t even the first time that a Film School Rejects writer has openly complained about Brion’s lack of Academy Award nominations. A multi-faceted musician and composer, Brion has spent a career quietly working outside the spotlight in both the film and music industries, helping give artists like Fiona Apple and Kanye West their signature sounds while penning some of the most standout film scores of the young century. For my money, Brion is one of the most unique talents working in the industry today, a composer who possesses the ear of a pop musician but the heart of a silent film accompanist. Brion’s live concerts are famously improvisatory; even a cursory listen to his Largo bootlegs will reveal him to be a gleefully inventive musician, and that sense of immediacy is carried over into his film work. Sure, he’s not without his musical traditions – he’ll always love a good waltz – but when your film features his music, it will always possess a singular sound.
So it is that Brion has come to write some of the most beloved movie soundtracks of the last twenty years. There’s his aforementioned Magnolia score, which propels the movie towards its fantastical ending; there’s the rhythmic percussion of Punch-Drunk Love, giving sound to the self-loathing and anxiety of the film’s title character; there’s the distorted tracks of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, where snippets of melodies float in and out like memories themselves; and there’s the hauntingly beautiful songs of Synecdoche, New York, where Brion’s music breathes life into Charlie Kauffman’s lyrics. In the years that followed, Brion would remain an eclectic and inspired composer, bouncing between animated films (ParaNorman), live-action comedies (This Is 40), and arthouse films (Miranda July’s The Future). With exactly zero Academy Award nominations to show for it.
That’s why I find myself most invested in the Best Original Score nominations this year. Unsurprisingly, both Lady Bird and Wilson made the Academy’s shortlist in this category – with 141 titles on the list, it seems more difficult to not be shortlisted than the other way around – but unlike many of the other titles on that list, Lady Bird is also a critical darling and odds-on favorite in several key categories. The film has garnered serious buzz as a Best Picture contender; Greta Gerwig, Saoirse Ronan, and Laurie Metcalf have also been mentioned as potential individual award nominees, and that kind of early hype tends to ensure that people remember the film for other categories come voting time. In a fairly stacked year for the category – Carter Burwell, Hans Zimmer, and Michael Giacchino are all on-hand with Oscar frontrunners and recent awards of their own – Brion could use every bit of help he can get.
For all my enthusiasm, however, most prognosticators expect Brion to be on the outside looking in when the final nominees are announced. Lady Bird did not receive a nomination for Best Original Score at this past month’s Golden Globes; furthermore, none of GoldDerby, AwardsWatch, and IndieWire list Lady Bird in their frontrunners or possible contenders categories. In a cruel twist of fate – at least as far as I’m concerned – one of the biggest frontrunners is Jonny Greenwood, the man who replaced Brion as Paul Thomas Anderson’s go-to musical collaborator. Given that Greenwood’s score for There Will Be Blood had previously been ruled ineligible for contention by the Academy, Phantom Thread seems to have both the quality and the momentum needed to finish strong in the eyes of voters. Paul Thomas Anderson’s films may finally bring home a Best Original Score Oscar, just not for the composer I had in mind.
Granted, Hollywood awards aren’t the be-all, end-all of artistic merit in the film industry, but there’s no better way to ensure career longevity as a musician than to have that “Academy Award Nominee” titled affixed to your name. So come on, Academy, do yourself a favor and make sure that Jon Brion remains a top-of-mind composer for the next generation of filmmakers. John Williams and Hans Zimmer have more than enough Oscars to last themselves a lifetime. I promise.