Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Soundtrack
ote: Because I believe that in reviewing a film score, especially one by a composer as revered as Jon Brion, whose scores are not necessarily viewed as an inevitable by-product of a film, but rather, are in some circles as eagerly anticipated as any ad-hoc indie craze, I am adopting the pretense that Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind should be regarded as thematic inspiration for the score—but not necessarily as a track-for-scene companion.
Anyway, I submit to you the concept of the film: Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) undergoes a procedure to have all memories of his girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet) erased, after an acrimonious break-up. Lessons are learned, and memory becomes known to Joel, as well as the audience, as something sacred and immutable.
To further muddle the issue for both composer and reviewer, this particular film is fragmentary, disorienting, romantic, terrifying—often, as the saying goes, "all at once." Perhaps inspired by Brion’s fabulous score for Paul Thomas Anderson’s similarly cracked Punch-Drunk Love, Gondry hired Brion to set his film to music. One shudders at how a less dexterous composer would have accomplished the task—as in Punch-Drunk Love, Brion’s score for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind seems as inextricable from the film as any other part of Gondry’s vision. In contrast to the circadian build-and-release intensity of Brion’s Magnolia score, or Punch-Drunk Love’s continued restatement of its whimsical theme, Eternal Sunshine is a relatively somber listen. As in all of Brion’s scores to date (And in all films? I don’t really pay enough attention to other film scores to make such a statement), the seventeen Brion-penned tracks here all to some extent have their impetus in one theme.
Interestingly, that theme is an adaptation of Brion’s pop song "Strings That Tie to You", a pop song that has been circulating for years on bootlegs originating from one of Brion’s Largo club performances. That this song thematically and lyrically pre-dates what is more or less the same content in Gondry’s film marks all of Brion’s tracks with a practically familial brilliance. Apropos of Brion’s immense talent for transmuting complex emotions into uncomplicated lyrics, "Strings That Tie to You" is an appropriately bittersweet theme for the film. Gondry’s baroque production is, as per usual, immaculate: swirling glockenspiels and tack pianos chime against Brion’s repetition of the lyric, "Everything’s a memory/With strings that tie to you". The sentiment proves to be a wholly appropriate one in context of the film, as Joel retreats into his actual memory bank and attempts to hide Clementine from the mechanized precision of the memory-erasure technique. In the same way that "Strings That Tie to You" acts as an apt summarization of the film’s major thematic conceits, the shorter instrumental pieces Brion composed for the soundtrack seem to reflect the backward structure of the film: how Gondry traces the evaporating symbiosis of Joel and Clementine’s relationship through depictions of happier times that fold into themselves, revealing deep wells of hurt and distrust hidden beneath.
"Bookstore," for example, begins as a wintry recapitulation of "Strings...”’ melody...until it is overcome by cooly abstract ambient textures, and fragmentary noise obscuring any romantic pretense "Strings" came attached to. The other songs don’t deviate entirely from this formula: "A Dream Upon Waking", however, connotes a shifty, uneasy atmosphere reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann’s scores—but this isn’t necessarily the point; in sum, Brion’s instrumental pieces comprise a cycle of total ambience, song-pieces that impress emotion upon the listener, while never quite distinguishing what that emotion is.
One’s enjoyment of the rest of the soundtrack will likely depend on their affinity for MOR indie-rock (Any of The Willowz’ three contributions), forced whimsy ("Light and Day" and "It’s the Sun", by the Polyphonic Spree), and Bollywood/dancehall music (Lata Mangeshkar and Don Nelson contribute one song each). Despite these songs relative inoffensiveness, they have no place on a soundtrack brimming with emotion and texture. The one exception, of course, would be Beck’s cover of The Korgis’ "Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime," here stripped of its New-Wave brightness and turned downcast and soulful. Though the song isn’t a necessarily extraordinary cover (In particular, one hopes that Beck retires his Sea Change-shtick before his new album comes later this year), it is saved by Brion’s elaborate production and Beck’s bruised vocals. It’s either a testament to Brion or Beck—I’m not sure who—that they could take such unremarkable 80s kitsch, and with no small amount of fine-tuning, locate the very real emotion at its core.
The soundtrack, for as long as I can remember, has been little more than an inevitable by-product of a film production. Among the very few film composers whose scores I actually anticipate—a post-modern coup of capitalism if I ever wrote one, anticipating the soundtrack at least as much as the film—Brion remains the only one smart enough to use the film he’s writing for as a mere basis what he’s trying to convey. His film scores thus far have been as smart and pretty as his pop song writing or production; Eternal Sunshine is no exception. Strip away all the songs other than those Brion or Beck had a hand in, and what you have is a small treasure of a record, and probably the finest film score of 2004.
Reviewed by: Eric Seguy
Reviewed on: 2004-04-15