The Losers: The Rare But Beautiful Film Scores of Jon Brion Deserve an Oscar

Focus Features

All this week, we’re celebrating the losers ‐ those talented filmmakers whom Oscar has foolishly overlooked.

In less than a minute of music, Jon Brion can prove he deserves more Oscars than he can carry.

There’s a sequence in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind where Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) and Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet) meet in a bookstore. We’ve journeyed through Joel’s memories as every trace of their relationship’s been wiped from his brain, and this moment ‐ him asking her out for the first, first time ‐ is one of the last. Their conversation starts off totally straight, like they barely know each other and this really is the beginning of their relationship. Until the music kicks in. Just as it does, the facade crumbles and Joel and Clementine are two lovers who know everything there is to know about the other. They enjoy this old memory for the last time, knowing that in a few seconds it’ll vanish forever.

It’s a sequence that cuts deep, filling you with the sadness of losing a loved one. And many of those feelings should be blamed on Brion, who composed the music, entitled “Bookstore,” along with the rest of Eternal Sunshine’s score.

Every emotion in Carrey and Winslet’s performance is amplified a hundred times over in Brion’s music. “Bookstore” is a series of string melodies in a kind of call-and-response pattern; the orchestra plays a simple three or four note melody, and a variation on that melody answers back. Each melody hangs on one long chord, but pulls back at the end with one or two quick ones. It gives the music a sense of two voices, each one experiencing a deep longing but having to pull away at the last minute. It mirrors exactly what we’re seeing onscreen.

There’s actually more to “Bookstore” than can be heard in that clip. The full piece is about twenty seconds longer and has a character you never hear in Eternal Sunshine — a lo-fi static crackle in the background and a series of notes played in reverse, creating an underlying melody with that ghostly wheem-wheem-wheem feeling.

This is film music at its very best. And yet Brion received no Oscar nomination for it. Or any Oscar nominations, period. Or any awards, ever. You read that right. The person who composed the music above has never* actually won an award for film scoring. Brion’s not just an Oscar loser, but a loser in the eyes of every entity established to reward good moviemaking.

It’s an absolute shame. And I’ll admit my own bias, because “Bookstore” is my very favorite piece of film music. Likewise, Brion’s not the most consistent guy. In his music-writing record, there’s only a handful of scores and pieces that really deserve Oscar adulation (for some reason, he’s spent the last six or seven years providing small amounts of music for Judd Apatow and Will Ferrell comedies). But in that handful are some of the most soulful and meta-genius film scores of the past fifteen years. Someone really should have handed Brion a trophy or two for them by now.

Brion’s Eternal Sunshine score has merit beyond “Bookstore.” Take an early scene where Joel and Clementine first kindle an awkward romance, not realizing that they dated for years and then mind-wiped the memories away. The music comes in at around 2:40 below.

“Phone Call,” the piece featured above, plays into a major part of Eternal Sunshine’s music: repetition. Multiple guitars play the same line at once, and that same line is repeated throughout the piece. It’s repetition in multiple directions, adding a new layer of deja vu to Joel and Clem’s romance.

Same for “Row” (beginning just before 1:00, below), which is endless slight variations on a single piano motif.

Along with Eternal Sunshine, Punch-Drunk Love is another film that really should have earned Brion a few statues. Barry Egan (Adam Sandler) is a sweetheart with a massive crush on Lena (Emily Watson). He also hates himself and suffers from a debilitating rage problem. Brion composed a completely different score for each side of Barry ‐ his inner Valentino brought out by a lush, old-fashioned waltz for orchestra, and his inner Mike Tyson by a chaotic scramble of percussion instruments.

When Barry races around Lena’s hotel to find her room and get a kiss, the love theme makes this a grand romantic journey (starting at around 1:55).

Whenever Barry flies into a rage, we get the percussion.

But Brion elevates his Punch-Drunk Love score by weaving it in and out of the reality of the film. Early on, Barry finds a harmonium (a small organ, basically) lying on the street, and over the course of the film he teaches himself how to play it. When he does, he’s playing sections of Brion’s love waltz. Similarly, Brion and Paul Thomas Anderson create a meta moment for Barry’s aggressive drums. The first time we hear them, Barry’s being berated by his sisters over the course of multiple phone calls, all badgering him about a family dinner that night. And we cut right from the drums to the dinner, with Barry sidling through the front door as the drum noise becomes a roomful of sisters, all gabbing at the top of their lungs about how they use to call Barry “gayboy” and make fun of his anger problems.

That cut gives us all the information we need. Barry’s anger stems from a childhood of constant bullying, and every time Brion starts mashing snares and tabla drums together, Barry’s hearing the residual sting of his sisters’ voices.

Though Eternal Sunshine and Punch-Drunk Love are the standouts, Brion’s career is marked by incredible work that few awards-giving bodies seem to notice. Say, “Little Person,” the haunting piano/bass/vocals jazz ballad he wrote for Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York. That one sat in a dusty corner, un-nominated, in a year when the Academy’s own terrible rules left them with only three Best Original Song Nominees.

It’s obviously too late for the Academy to honor these old pieces. But if Brion ever gives up the comedy-scoring circuit (his latest is Trainwreck) and takes on another indie drama with musical room to maneuver, we might finally see Brion’s name in one of those little awards show envelopes. Just one. Is that so much to ask?

*Okay, technically Brion HAS won several ASCAP Top Box Office Films awards, but ASCAP describes the award thusly: “[honoring] ASCAP composers and songwriters with music from the top box office films of [that year].” From what I can tell, it’s just a pat on the back for scoring a film that made a lot of money- no merit involved.

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