If Los Angeles is pop music’s Rome, then film director Paul Thomas Anderson is its hippest senator. And in these terms, he’s on a streak: In Boogie Nights‘ famous scene where a drug dealer freaks out as Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian” repeats, Anderson showed how the extreme Styxian chromatics of a few ’70s-’80s radio bands allowed listeners not to have to guess what removing their fingernails felt like. In Magnolia he latched onto the work of Aimee Mann—then, as now, uninducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—as though her work negotiated a combination of Joni Mitchell and Aretha Franklin. Now, with singer-songwriter-instrumentalist-producer Jon Brion, who oversaw Mann’s great Magnolia tunes, at large on the soundtrack for Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love, he does L.A. eclecticism proud. It’s a soundtrack suffused with 10 million emotions, sunsets, old movies, and old records.
Weird-ass classics—the kind Elvis Costello likes to highlight in Vanity Fair music issues—don’t come any finer than Van Dyke Parks and the late Harry Nilsson’s 1980 soundtrack for Robert Altman’s Popeye. For Punch-Drunk Love, Brion, in his score’s central “Punch-Drunk Melody,” pays splendid homage to the Nilsson/Parks work, a swirl of sugar and salt and symphonicism and spit; Brion also remixes Popeye‘s original Olive Oyl turn “He Needs Me,” warbled by a pluperfectly impressed-unimpressed Shelly Duvall. Elsewhere, he sequences vintage and newly distressed exotica like “Waikiki,” “Danny (Lonely Blue Boy),” and “Moana Chimes,” which together build to a surreal kind of Conway Twitty in Hawaii thing. And Brion’s own compositions bloom, from a spiny piece of electronica called “Hands & Feet” to “Here We Go,” a Brion ballad he delivers with the mixture of Beatles-esque form and L.A. feelings that is now to an Anderson film what Bacharach was to the ’70s, Sinatra to the ’50s and ’60s, or Shirley Bassey to Bond. Guys like Anderson, in the end, are at root making musicals: They’re today’s version of Vincente Minnelli. Quentin Tarantino had better get busy.