To many musicians and film-geek aficionados, producer/musician/composer Jon Brion is regarded as a genius — the hot, au courant film composer of the moment.
But Brion, who scored Michel Gondry’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Punch-Drunk Love” and most recently, David O. Russell’s existential comedy, “I Heart Huckabees,” isn’t a big fan of most music you’ll hear in today’s movies. In fact, he’s downright suspicious of their motives and cross-marketing opportunities.
“I’m sick of the fact that all movies have a great deal of disparity between their scores and their songs,” he lamented. “The score is just some emotional wallpaper and then the songs — they’re just a gratuitous marketing plan. I don’t need some band that some record company is really psyched about [getting] shoved in some scene of the movie when it has nothing to do with it. It just pisses me off.”
While Brion — who has worked extensively with Fiona Apple, Aimee Mann, Rufus Wainwright, Macy Gray and many others — might be well-known in the film and music industry, he’s still far from a household name, because the projects he takes on are usually too small too be considered blockbuster and too big to be thought of as independent.
“The films [I've scored] are almost the equivalent to the records I’ve [produced], which is — I’m not interested in siding with the overground or with the underground. I think I probably have as much distaste for most big-budget Hollywood movies as your average indie-rocker would have for a big-budget record release.”
Though he does seem to be the go-to guy for movie music, Brion’s been doing his best to turn down film soundtracks in favor of solo material. But quality projects like “Huckabees” keep reeling him in. “I don’t actively seek out film scores too much,” he said. “I was swearing at my friend on the phone [when he said Russell was interested], saying, ‘Damn you, I can’t say
But instead of composing a typically atypical Brion score — both lush and whimsical in his use of peculiar instrumentation — Russell serendipitously came upon the music for the film while Brion was fiddling around at the piano with some of his older, unreleased songs.
“It was a classic tale of ‘What’s that!?’ ” Brion said of Russell’s “eureka” moment upon hearing his songs. ” ‘Can we watch it with the scene?’ And then we watched the scene with [the music], and all of the sudden, the movie had an absolute definitive feel to it.”
“The themes in ‘Huckabees’ are, strangely, things that I’ve been personally obsessed with for years and have even written songs about,” Brion said of the strange coincidence between his already-written lyrics and what was happening onscreen. “What people will find over time, when the vocal versions of these songs are released, is whenever [an instrumental] song is placed in the movie, its lyrics actually relate to the scene that’s going on, but people won’t know that right now because they’re not hearing the vocals.”
Though there are no conventional “songs” to speak of in the movie, the “Huckabees” soundtrack contains five songs with vocals that Brion speaks of.
Other songs recorded during the sessions could also find their way on to an undetermined Internet-only EP that Brion is eager to release in the coming months.
The highly in-demand producer and songwriter has a spate of other projects in the works. First, Brion hopes to release his first solo album in four years in March, which he describes as his characteristically “happy-go-lucky sh–.”
He also has his “crazy improvisational” group Bunny (with Soul Coughing bassist Sebastian Steinberg and session drummer Matt Chamberlain), and a live solo album that was recorded at Largo, the popular L.A. hotspot where Brion performs weekly and celebrity musicians have been known to join him.
But these various projects have been on Brion’s plate for more than a year, so the question remains: Can he say no to the film scores that eat up his free time?
“Tomorrow I could get a call: ‘The Coen brothers, Spike Jonze and Pedro Almodovar got together and decided they wanted you to do the music. And they want tuba quartets playing Cole Porter songs for the whole thing! Are you in?’ What am I gonna do? Say no? I would love to receive that phone call. That would be hysterical.”
The next big appearance for Brion might be on Fiona Apple’s much-anticipated third album, Extraordinary Machine. That is, if the record — which has languished in label limbo for over a year — ever comes out.
“I have no clue what’s going on with her record,” he said. “We recorded 10 or 11 songs. Every 12 months I check in and nothing happens, so I say, ‘Oh well. Maybe next year.’ “