Punch-Drunk Love and There Will Be Blood

Scenes & Songs is a feature focused on the intersection of music and film, or in this case, TV. Each installment intends to examine movies and shows that involve significant musical subject content, distinct soundtracks, or maybe even just an excellent song used for a specific scene. View all

Scenes & Songs is a feature focused on the intersection of music and film. Each installment intends to examine movies that involve significant musical subject content and/or distinct soundtracks, or maybe even just an excellent song used for a specific scene.

Today I finish my series on the superb uses of music by director Paul Thomas Anderson. For three weeks (in anticipation of his sixth feature The Master), I have been highlighting some of my favorite moments in his films. This third and final installment is a double dose of Punch-Drunk Love and There Will Be Blood. I can't decide if I want pudding or a milkshake.

Our journey through the PTA oeuvre comes to an end with his 2000s output, a pair of films that shed the ensemble for closer looks at the lives of two men. Punch-Drunk Love stars Adam Sandler. As Barry Egan, he plays off our expectations of the typical Adam Sandler character with a more subdued and revelatory performance. Instead of feeling cartoonish, the usual immaturity and barely suppressed rage creates the striking portrait of a complex individual. I find this the most creative of all Anderson's movies because everything about it feels so out of nowhere. The details include Barry's job selling novelty plungers, his scheme to trade pudding for airline miles, his seven sisters, his conflict with a thieving phone sex ring, and of course, his bizarre but perfect love with Lena Leonard (Emma Watson), which involves a romantic getaway to Hawaii. Oh, there's a harmonium, too.

The vortex at the center of There Will Be Blood is Daniel Day-Lewis as oil man Daniel Plainview. The first adapted work in the PTA canon, this is the tale of one man's towering greed and staggering drive to create an oil empire no matter the cost. He has an adopted son, a mysterious brother, and a maddening foil in the young preacher of the town where he makes his huge score, but everything comes back to Daniel. It is a highly acclaimed performance and film. While it may not have the magnitude of cast, it certainly is monumental and epic in every other sense. Though set in the early twentieth century, the naked ambition of a ruthless man is always timeless.

Musically in this series we have seen a film with a diverse soundtrack and another with one primary artist. Now, we will look at films that have scores. Punch-Drunk Love was scored by Jon Brion. Jon is part of the same LA scene as Michael Penn and Aimee Mann and he helped out a bit on some of Anderson's previous films. He has enjoyed great success for his film work (I particularly love his score for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and as a producer (credits include Fiona Apple, Kanye West, Spoon, The Punch Brothers, and, most recently, Best Coast). There Will Be Blood was done by Jonny Greenwood, guitarist in a little band called Radiohead.

I can't evaluate either score's technical and compositional merit, but both to me sound accomplished and seem quite memorable to viewers. In my opinion – not that this is a contest – Punch-Drunk Love is more impressive because I believe it actually makes the film work. There Will Be Blood has such a strong performance at its center that almost everything else is superfluous, whereas all of the odd, disparate elements of Punch-Drunk Love gain a sense of cohesion and illumination from the music.

In the scene above, we see a critical moment in Barry and Lena's relationship. Barry had been hesitant to show any interest in Lena because of his sisters overbearing curiosity, but he can't help liking her. So he takes the plunge into getting to know her, a gamble because he's very unstable and has no idea how to relate to anyone else in any meaningful way. Luckily, Lena seems to be absolutely in love with him. As this scene opens, he is saying goodbye and it goes pathetically (How he beats himself up over the "bye bye," is amazing). However, he gets the chance to salvage it, and does, with the two enjoying their first kiss.

There is no music at first, just the deafening silence of Barry's humiliation. When hope comes back, the music tentatively starts before a lovely swell at the kiss. Despite how weird these two are, it's a beautiful scene. The moment feels both unreal and real. It's almost self-consciously "Hollywood romantic" but something of substance is blossoming. Hence, the score here enhances the artificial, meta-reality ("this is that part of the movie where they kiss") and yet we internalize the moment because of its emotional cues. (Another similar sequence occurs when the two meet in Hawaii, which you can see in this clip).

The scene above, I think, is an even better example of the work the score does. Here, it has a "found sound," collage quality and never quite coalesces around a melody or structure, mirroring how Barry generally lives from one moment to the next. He is susceptible to drastic changes of mood, as we see. He's initially euphoric (love the little dance) about his pudding scheme, then angry when its logistics clash with his vision. The score keeps us unmoored so that when Barry's up, it's an entrancing groove and when he's down, it's chaotic and noisy.

This is one of my two favorite sequences in There Will Be Blood (the other is the wordless opening). It's an amazing scene that demonstrates Paul Thomas Anderson's talent. I love the dynamics of the light, and the cinematography is breath-taking. It also marks a major turning point in the story. Because of this explosion, HW permanently loses his hearing and his surrogate father, though the ties won't be severed completely until years later. Still they begin to weaken beyond repair here. Because of this explosion, Daniel becomes the oil man he hungered to be. The main subtext is that as much as he tries to care about other things, personified by HW, Daniel cares much more, and exclusively, about the oil. If his actions weren't already an indication, the lines "What are you looking so miserable about? There's a whole ocean of oil under our feet. No one can get at it except for me," are.

I hear two prominent elements in the music: a steady percussive beat, ever-increasing in tempo and volume, and a clattering of other instruments. To me, the beat is Daniel and his ambition. It is incessant. It feeds off itself. It is stopped by nothing. The rest of the music, which never marks a clear counterpoint to compel our ears away from the beat, is every distraction. It is any threat to Daniel's rise. It is symbolized by the burning derrick or the confused-at-his-new-deafness HW. A fire? A life-changing affliction? No matter to Daniel and his march towards greatness. He puts in a token effort to console HW, but he doesn't bother to mourn the lost derrick. As the beat becomes steadier, Daniel steels to his purpose and makes quick work chopping the rigging down. The scene and its score serve as a nutshell of where everything will go. That beat will only strengthen, foreshadowing Daniel's deepening monomania, which only ceases when he proclaims himself finished, at which point he has gained everything from oil but is utterly alone.

Both of these scores are innovative and interesting. I think Punch-Drunk Love would have a much smaller chance of success without the music that helps anchor everything else. There Will Be Blood is unquestionably enhanced by its score, but as the scene here shows, you could still get most of what it conveys out of the film itself. Again, though, I am not proposing a contest or the removal of the score. I just think Jon Brion's score had to do a little more heavy lifting than Jonny Greenwood's. Either way, they are both great and critical parts of the works.

I'll be interested to see and hear The Master. Based on the past three weeks of posts, I know there will be at least one amazing scene that will become inextricably tied in my mind to a wonderful piece of music.