It’s not easy for me to separate Nathan Johnson’s work from his collaborations with his cousin, director Rian Johnson (Looper). After all, my introduction to his scores started with Brick, and, to be fair, I was more intrigued with the director at the time than the composer. But a few years went by, and I saw The Brothers Bloom. It was here that my attention was drawn specifically to the vastly dynamic score. I loved it (and still do; it’s arguably my favorite of Johnson’s work to date), and ever since then, I’ve paid much closer attention to Johnson’s beautifully unique, developing voice.
Johnson’s work on Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s debut feature Don Jon is a demonstration of just how dynamic he can be. The score elevates the film from an average romantic comedy to a poignant tale of disillusionment and rediscovery. Often times scores and soundtracks are criticized for telling the audience how they should feel, yet in Don Jon, Johnson properly reinforces the conflicted internal struggle that Levitt’s character Jon continually experiences as he attempts to conquer his addiction to pornography and idealism. Sometimes tongue-in-cheek, mocking romantic comedy — other times genuine and dramatic — the score vacillates from playful to bombastic, clubby to fable-esque. There’s a lot of heavy lifting to do, and the score seems to do it with ease.
“My Ride” is a great example of how efficient the score can be; it’s a mere 23 seconds. Not only does it provide a quick callback to Jon’s “addiction” musical motif, but it also perfectly conveys Jon’s emotional high and exactly how good he feels about his coveted car and being ruler of the road. When Jon finally meets the girl of his dreams, Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), the score swoons, somewhat reminiscent of Brothers Bloom. It swells effectively and references the romantic comedy genre, but at the same time, makes fun of it a bit. Take the track, “Facebook Stalker.” You can almost imagine Pepé Le Pew pursuing Penelope Pussycat while listening to it without the rest of the movie. The playfulness helps to maintain a tone that’s comical, but restrained. It helps to make the bitter parts of Jon’s journey easier to accept. Without these vital cues from the score, I wouldn’t have found the character or story nearly as endearing.
Keeping in tradition with Johnson’s previous work, the score for Don Jon feels fittingly introspective, warm, and personal. I have to admit, though, that I’m looking forward to more opportunities for him to work on larger scale with bigger orchestrations. More musicians and more instruments, please. I don’t doubt that those very opportunities are already in play, and I can’t wait to hear what Nathan Johnson does next.