Copyright 2000 Spin Magazine, Inc.

Spin Magazine

January, 2000


LENGTH: 840 words

SECTION: Rotation: Heavy Rotation

HEADLINE: Magnolia: Soundtrack to the Motion Picture

BYLINE: Joey Sweeney

In the handful of times I've ever been to Los Angeles, I've only ever seen two actual famous people: one was Ben Stein, deep in consideration of the fruit section at the far end of a Hollywood supermarket. The other was Aimee Mann, stirring a vodka-tonic, looking on as her friend Jon Brion took the stage at a bar called the Mint, a place which, I'm told, has all the allure of the watering hole in your town that allows music (with the emphasis on the word "allows") and caters to just the type of suspension of disbelief that lets you to keep going to this place, over and over, seeing the same people, over and over, without ever seeming to realize that you just may not like it.

That's a rather middling portrait of the lifestyles of the rich and famous, I know, but it's also just the kind of pall that hangs over P.T. Anderson's Magnolia, for which Mann, Brion and a small group of collaborators have composed the soundtrack.

In Magnolia - which I won't go into great detail about except to say that it is a winding, loping, sad-eyed movie that is, at its heart, a testament to the never ending power of human wonderment - this middling fame, this sense of lapsed promise colors its story waiting-room gray. It's the job of the actors and the script and the music to wrestle back the life and color in the film, and it's a tension that's palpable from the opening credits, over which Mann deftly adapts Harry Nilsson's "One" (better known as a hit for Three Dog Night).

I won't give away the ending, but even at the opening chords of the song, the first in a series of lonely, plinking organs and pianos we will hear. Mann's voice cuts across, crystalline, pure and knowing; there begins a slow unraveling that over the course of the next three hours simply does not relent.

And that's a great testament to Mann. In the liner notes to the soundtrack, Anderson testifies that essentially, Magnolia itself is an adaptation of the song fragments Mann would play for him as he was considering his next move after Boogie Nights. But don't get the wrong idea; while both Magnolia the movie and Magnolia the album are elliptical in nature, that nature is deceptive.

Mann has composed a series of songs here that fall one right into the other, and if they live and breathe on record (and they do, and they do), it's not because of a triggered filmic memory. Indeed, half the songs on the record are merely background in the movie.

Still, two of the key moments on record and film play right into one another: the opening line of "Deathly," "Now that I've met you, would you object to never seeing each other again?" is reprised by one of the characters. And the whole of "Wise Up," a mournful number that has the phrase "and it's not going to stop" as its vocal hook, is sung in its entirety in the movie by the ensemble cast.

It's a dirty trick, and in any case, it's jarring to say the least. But that only illustrates the strength of these songs, that they can withstand anything - theft, the cheek of a movie director, you name it - and they can withstand anything because they are about people who can do the same.

There's a lot of teary-eyed people saying things like "I'll be good to you" in this movie, and without believing that my impression of the music has been unduly influenced by the film, I like to believe that Anderson has tapped into the subtext of these songs. They're about weathered, tough souls who find themselves at the mid- or end-points of their lives, lonely beyond belief. That the only other songs on the soundtrack not by Mann or Brion are by Supertramp and Gabriel plays like some kind of cruel joke on these people, that no matter what music they hear in their souls, outside in the cold light of mid-morning, there's some jerk at his desk tapping his toe to "Illogical Song."

For ages, the rich and famous have been crowing on about how lonely it is at the top, but what no one likes to admit, even the destitute and unknown, is that it's even more lonely and strange to be in the middle, when the ladder could snap in two at any time. Pop star for a moment in the '80s, fledgling singer-songwriter in the '90s, Aimee Mann knows all about this, and that someone could translate that fearsome, plaintive existence into such a masterwork is well, it just might be more than we deserve from her. Her time between should be over, any second now.

Joey Sweeney (