20 Years Later, Jon Brion’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Score Remains Unforgettable

Movies Features Film Scores
20 Years Later, Jon Brion’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Score Remains Unforgettable

It’s been 20 years since the world met Joel and Clementine, the ill-fated lovers of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, on a train departing Montauk. From the pen of Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation, Being John Malkovich), the cerebral 2004 romance enters the pain-riddled psyche of Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) as he undergoes a hot new procedure to have his brain scrubbed of all memories of his turbulent relationship with his ex-girlfriend, Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslett). Surreal lighting design and rose-colored montages pull off Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’s rich emotional core, but it’s the film’s score, by Jon Brion, that unveils a deeper understanding of our main characters, giving a conduit into, in particular, Joel’s psychological inner workings.

In his compositions, Brion combines impassioned strings and electronic production to translate a character’s mental landscape into an evocative sonic profile. Eternal Sunshine is no exception, and it marks the first of Brion’s two scores for a Kaufman screenplay. Brion also composed music for Synecdoche, New York, where he, once again, excelled in bringing sound to a surrealist representation of a character’s mind; in Eternal Sunshine’s case, Brion captures post-breakup Joel in awake and sedated states—withdrawn in the former, disoriented in the latter, aching in both. To make up for the character’s lack of spoken transparency about his feelings—something Clementine points out—Brion’s score becomes key for bringing Joel’s thoughts to the surface.

No track better exemplifies the intricacies of Brion’s soundscapes than the film’s “Theme,” the first music we hear as a groggy Joel rises from bed and shuffles to the nearest train stop, where he is forced to trudge through a crowd of doe-eyed riders with store-bought bouquets celebrating Valentine’s Day 2004. Just like Joel’s journey, the theme leaves us in a state of flux: The track’s piano and resonant bassline evoke an unshakable melancholy, yet warbling electronic oscillations and occasional blithe woodwind melodies bring out glimpses of joy. The theme doesn’t define a clear emotion at the beginning of the film, leaving us in the dark about how its story will unfold. 

Over the course of the movie, Brion builds on the emotional intensity of watching two characters rediscover their love and struggle to cling onto their fading memories—longing, regret and even disorientation are strung together through grand orchestral arrangements, like the gloomy piano track “Row” and the wistful “Phone Call, a standout for Brion’s rare use of guitar in Eternal Sunshine. Despite its great emotional depths, Brion’s score avoids falling into a single lane of despondency, with many cheery songs reminding us of the couple’s past love, and even sometimes reminding us of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’s fantastical concept. 

“A Dream Upon Waking” features a similar warbling-organ effect to Eternal Sunshine’s theme, but instead utilizes a carnival-esque tune, accented by bellowing chants and a jack-in-the-box pace that bring to life Joel’s tip-toeing as he dodges the blind spots in his memory. The (legal?) memory-wiping technology lends itself to a humorous use of sci-fi—director Michael Gondry trades sterile labs and futuristic tech for a more kitschy device; clunky wires and a strainer-like bowl connect Joel’s memory centers to a 2000s-era computer monitor. The score complements this hokey tech, coating orchestral arrangements with a metallic clunkiness via chimes and steelpan patters. On “Showtime,” the ominous track that plays out during the mind-wiper’s introduction, Brion drowns out a distant, high-pitched piano melody with cymbals and ambient droning, conjuring a galactic atmosphere for the supernatural scene. Brion accents the movie’s mood and its characters’ traits with these compositions, as well as musically reflecting the emotional ebbs and flows of its plot.

“Strings that Tie to You,” the only track with vocals from Brion, stands out among the rest of the score. The song’s melody appears throughout the film as a motif for Joel’s longing for his loving memories of Clementine. The lyrics echo the film’s story: “In my dreams I’m often running / to the place that’s out of view / of every kind of memory / with strings that tie to you.” The low-key ballad features soft percussion that makes it fittingly beachy, leaning on pedal steel to generate a twinkle that compliments the ambient arrangements throughout the album. The pivotal track bridges the instrumental score with the accompanying soundtrack, in which Brion incorporates a small collection of garage rock and pop-rock tracks to give Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind a more era-specific sound. 

The film’s opening credits appear along with a cover of “Everybody’s Got to Learn Sometime,” originally sung by The Korgis in 1980. Brion produced this version, opting for a more stripped-down instrumentation and somber vocal performance from Beck. Other songs include a pair of tracks from garage rock quartet The Willowz and two additions from choral pop-rock outfit The Polyphonic Spree. Unlike Brion’s instrumental score—which has aged less over the past two decades because of its unique yet recognizable blend of sounds—these soundtrack additions feel more apt to the movie’s release date—these songs fit amidst the popularity of twee pop, early MP3 downloads and whimsical, emotive singer-songwriters coming down from the high of ‘90s grunge. The rock additions to the soundtrack, memorable and possessing a tender “heart on your sleeve” charm, complement the turbulent relationship of Joel and Clementine.

Many of these tracks, most ringing in at less than a minute, might not be memorable on their own, but Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’s stunning ambient score stands as a key component of the film’s profound beauty. Twenty years after its release, the opening piano notes of its theme can still draw us back to Joel’s Valentine’s Day misery. It’s arguably Jon Brion’s most famous score, and for good reason—he packed all of the film’s emotions into a cohesive soundscape that is deceptively simple, but harnesses nuanced emotional weight and a layered mixing of electronically-produced sounds and more traditional ambient instrumental compositions. Despite the sci-fi’s preoccupations, Brion’s score is still unforgettable (you might just need to revisit the tear-jerking romance to jog your memory).

Sage Dunlap is a journalist based in Austin, TX. She currently contributes to Paste as a movies section intern, covering the latest in film news.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin