Scores on Screen. Strings That Tie You: "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind"

Jon Brion's score for Michel Gondry's film sonically maps the internal and external tumult of a heartbroken soul.
Clare Nina Norelli
A man on screen slowly opens his eyes as he wakes from sleep, adjusting his vision as he takes in the dull early morning light coming from the window. As he regards the dreary winter weather outside, a piece of music begins on the soundtrack. It’s a lilting, lazy waltz that oscillates between E-flat major and G minor, a bittersweet harmonic dichotomy that we’ll soon learn mirrors the man’s lovesick state of mind. As he sighs and reluctantly gets out of bed, a simple, sweetly-melancholic piano melody begins atop the chorus of reverse tape loops in the accompaniment. We know, because the music tells us, that this is man is not a bad man, but he is most definitely a sad man.
Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) has recently suffered a heartbreaking loss: the end of his relationship with the eccentric and free-spirited Clementine Kruczynski (Kate Winslet). After running into Clementine at her work and discovering she no longer recognizes him, mutual friends inform Joel that Clementine undertook a procedure offered by a company called Lacuna, Inc. that erases all memories of a person or relationship. Joel decides to do the same and signs-up to have Clementine’s existence permanently removed from his mind. But as the procedure (which is undertaken while the client sleeps) commences, Joel realizes that he does not want to lose his memories of Clementine, no matter how painful they may be, and his unconscious mind begins to fight the Lacuna technicians in the waking world.
After he leaves home for work at the beginning of the film, Joel decides to call in sick and, in an uncharacteristically impulsive move, jumps on a train to Montauk. Here, he runs into Clementine on the beach and also in a café, but the pair do not speak to one another until on the train returning to New York City. When Clementine finally approaches Joel, who is initially apprehensive about her advances, the music follows the shift in character from the weary waltz of the shy Joel, to a bouncy woodwind cue that reflects the outgoing Clementine. The unresolved, repetitive cue imitates Clementine’s persistent chatter, only stopping twice during their interaction. First, during a break in conversation when Clementine sulks, and then, when Clementine sings a telling phrase from the old American folk ballad “Oh My Darling, Clementine.”
Oh my darling, oh my darling
Oh my darling, Clementine.
You are lost and gone forever,
Dreadful sorry, Clementine.
It’s a song we’ll hear again in the film, noticeably when Joel’s unconscious mind revels in the memory of his mother giving him a bath as a baby whilst singing the song and then again, less obviously, in the film’s penultimate scene. Clementine and Joel have realized, after listening to their preliminary interview tapes for Lacuna, that they’ve previously been in a relationship with one another. As they listen uncomfortably to Joel’s admonishments of Clementine, a pained, augmented string arrangement of “Oh My Darling, Clementine” plays on the soundtrack.
Jon Brion’s score (with orchestrations by Steve Bartek) for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind maps sonically the goings-on of both Joel’s internal and external worlds throughout the film. There are romantic cues, such as “Bookstore” and “Peer Pressure,” that reflect the love that Joel and Clementine shared (and are fated to continue sharing). By contrast, cues that are more dissonant and chaotic are representative of the disintegration of Joel’s subconscious mind during the procedure. “Showtime” features fragments of piano motifs and seemingly disparate instrumental tracks layered on top of one another for an unnerving, disorienting effect; “A Dream Upon Waking” presents woodwinds engaging in a repetitive jarring “playground taunt” backed by creeping electronics as Joel attempts to evade memory loss. Reverse tape loops also permeate the score, a reminder that Joel’s memories are playing in reverse. The tape loops are also representative of the film’s circular narrative, and as Eternal Sunshine progresses we learn that the film’s beginning is also its end.
One of the score’s most emotionally potent cues, “Phone Call,” is first heard when Joel and Clementine part ways after meeting in Montauk. Joel promises to call Clementine when he gets home, and as he heads back to his apartment the cue begins. The repetitive, open chord motif on the guitar is affected in such a way that renders it nostalgic and warm, as if it were playing off an old record player. Strings rise and fall alongside the guitar’s unending motif, and the whole cue presents a mood of optimistic longing; the breathless feeling of nervous excitement one encounters at the prospect of a new romance.
When Patrick (Elijah Wood), an employee of Lacuna, Inc. who is now attempting to seduce Clementine by using objects and notes concerning Clementine that Joel relinquished before undergoing the procedure, gives Clementine the gift of a necklace originally purchased by Joel, “Phone Call” appears again on the soundtrack. But this time the cue is in a different key, indicating that the affection and gratitude Clementine expresses toward Patrick is off—it’s really meant for Joel. Following the exchange, we are immediately presented with one of Joel’s intimate memories of Clementine and the cue continues. As the memory fades and Joel begs via voice-over “Please let me keep this memory,” the music becomes garbled and eventually morphs into a distorted version of Beck’s “Everybody’s Got To Learn Sometimes.”
John Brion produced Beck’s solemn cover of the 1980 song by The Korgis especially for Eternal Sunshine so as to retain a musical homogeneity to the film’s soundtrack. The song plays over the opening credits of the film which, unusually, don’t commence until just over seventeen minutes into the film. During this sequence, we’re shown Joel sobbing as he listens to the song on his car stereo after his break-up with Clementine. Coupled with another scene in which the song eminates from a source outside Joel and Clementine’s bedroom, it’s obvious that this song exists diegetically within their world and was their “special song.” However, we never hear “Everybody’s Got To Learn Sometimes” in its entirety until the very end of the film.
After Joel and Clementine have listened to their Lacuna tapes and learnt of their erased relationship, they resolve that ‘it is better to loved and lost’ and decide to give their relationship a second chance. The scene then cuts to the couple running joyfully along the beach at Montauk where they first met, and the song continues into the film’s end credits.
Change your heart, look around you.
Change your heart, it will astound you.
I need your loving like the sunshine.
And everybody's gotta learn sometime.
Joel and Clementine learn that their love can persevere despite their respective flaws. No matter what they do, even if they destroy all memory of their relationship, they will still find each other and repeat the past. Their love is vital, and as such their very existence depends on it.

Scores on Screen is a column by Clare Nina Norelli on film soundtracks.


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