I remember my excitement seeing Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch Drunk Love for the first time as a tween. After films like Boogie Nights and Magnolia, I was jacked up for Anderson’s next move: more John C. Reilly, more Aimee Mann, more frogs. But Punch Drunk Love delivered none of these things. I’ve watched it again and enjoyed it as an adult, but at the time, it gave me the heebie-jeebies.
If you don’t know the story, it’s about a super lonely guy played by Adam Sandler who buys large quantities of pudding in order to take advantage of a frequent-flyer mail-in promotion (apparently a true story, by the way), ends up in trouble with a skeezy phone sex line run by an also skeezy Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and falls in love with a sweet, shy woman played by Emily Watson. Some of it takes place in Hawaii.
Anderson called PDL his attempt at a romantic comedy, but it’s about as funny as There Will Be Blood. This was one of Sandler’s first forays into drama (aside from the rousing emotional climaxes of most of his movies, “I love you, Dad”) and despite his success portraying Barry’s rage, it adds up to something overwhelming and unpleasant (at least my first time around). A big part of the film's unsettling effect is due to the score by Jon Brion.
Brion, a veteran music producer (Aimee Mann, Fiona Apple, Kanye West, Best Coast, Spoon), was Anderson’s go-to scorer before Jonny Greenwood became the guy (There Will Be Blood, The Master, Inherent Vice). Brion's also known for his memorable scores for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I Heart Huckabees, and recently, the opening theme for comedian John Mulaney’s Netflix special The Comeback Kid (the song is not on YouTube, but I encourage you in the strongest terms to watch it. The special is great; the song is better).
In some ways, Greenwood’s music for There Will Be Blood might be more fitting than what we get in Brion's score; Blood would echo Barry’s precarious highs and lows, his self-hatred, his love of a good deal. But what we get in this score is not a reflection of Barry’s story but a dreamy, hallucinatory counterpoint.
In retrospect, it makes sense that Anderson would make the jump from Brion to Greenwood, like Fugazi following Minor Threat. Brion is closer to a traditional film composer, or at least he plays with more traditional themes; his work is concrete, maybe a little twisted, but familiar. Greenwood is closer to Bernard Hermann, the legendary composer behind scores like Citizen Kane, Taxi Driver and Psycho. His stuff is abstract and seems to take more inspiration from dissonant classical music than traditional film scores. Greenwood is showy and big, Brion’s music is small and personal.
“Overture,” the opening theme to PDL, encapsulates what Brion is going for off the bat. It starts wheezing and atonal, then drops into a cutesy orchestral waltz, weaving through the themes with overdone strings and one adorable oboe. It’s schmaltzy as fuck, but purposefully so. This is the music of Barry’s imagination, and the dude is pretty schmaltzy, his dreams of giving and receiving love are pipe dreams, so it makes sense that the strings have to reach so far.
The atonal, amelodic stuff is pretty fun, too. “Tabla” and “Hands and Feet” feel like Barry waking up from his flights of imagination, back into his head, which, if I’m reading it right, is a pretty shitty place. Anderson said some of the more abstract noises in the score are recorded from the warehouse where Barry works, which totally makes sense, as it is also a pretty shitty place.
Once the story arrives in Hawaii, we’re treated to some interesting takes on traditional island music. “Moana Chimes,” a steel guitar song from Hawaiian composer Benjamin Rogers, gets a great rendition from Brion, who slows it down and coats it in sleepy, lo-fi production. “Waikiki,” another classic Hawaiian song, also gets some creepy treatment, mixed and panned with what sounds like an inattentive audience not watching a singer sing. “Healthy Choice” sounds like music written for elevators, by elevators.
Hawaiian music is fitting for PDL. I’ve never been, but I assume it’s weird to live in a place that’s so commodified and idealized in the greater world’s imagination. It is cartoonishly beautiful and it’s got the uke-music to match, but that perception seems a little phony. Like idealizing a crush from a distance, projection leads mostly to disappointment. Brion’s choice to utilize Hawaiian styles while subverting it with the production is some seriously smart scoring, man. Well done.
Punch Drunk Love, as well as a few other Brion gems I added to the list, makes great work music for all the reasons listed above. I think good work music needs varying levels of sincerity and meaning, to keep your interest. So music that's pretty on the surface and rotten underneath is a good place to start. Or maybe listening to Punch Drunk Love is just an opportunity to roll around in the schmaltz for a while and enjoy some seriously twee tunes. Who knows. Either way, enjoy.
Best if you work in: novelty plungers, phone sex, pudding manufacture
If you have any suggestions, comments, complaints or want to share your own work music, send to firstname.lastname@example.org
For the full playlist of Music To Sweep To, go here.