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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

"Old-timey music": the music of the Coen brothers' movies

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(Photo courtesy Universal Pictures)

One of the striking aspects of the Coen brothers’ masterful new No Country for Old Men (reviewed here) is the near-absence of music. A mariachi band makes an incongruous appearance late in the film, and the Coens' longtime composer Carter Burwell is credited with a score, but it’s so stealthy as to go unnoticed. The taut cat-and-mouse scenes tend to take place in chilling silence, accompanied only by creaky floorboards, careful intakes of breath and the explosions of weapons.

With the reasoning that you never appreciate something until it’s gone, here’s a retrospective on the use of music in the films of Joel and Ethan Coen, thanks to a little help from YouTube.

Carter Burwell has composed music for the Coens going back to their 1984 debut, Blood Simple. Burwell’s insistent, moody piano score may not be as memorable as the violent film noir’s recurring use of a Motown hit. As screenwriter/blogger Todd Alcott points out in his terrific analysis of the film, "'The Same Old Song' is used three times in the movie, suggesting that the fatal mistakes the characters make are all part of an unstoppable continuum."

A quirkier, more innovative soundtrack came to the fore with the Coens' second film, the Southwestern screwball comedy Raising Arizona (1987). Nicolas Cage’s wry narration as petty hood H.I. McDonough finds an exuberant counterpoint in Burwell’s racing banjo music, whistles and yodeling. Maybe the countrified strains mock the film’s trailer-park cast just a little bit, but the music also carries the audience along in a state of galloping giddiness, in perfect time with the rapid-fire jokes. (Incidentally, the film’s use of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” derives from Pete Seeger’s “Goofing-Off Suite.”) This clip offers a taste, and reminds you how much NBC's “My Name Is Earl” owes to Raising Arizona.

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With the Irish vs. Italian gang war of Miller’s Crossing (1990), Burwell presented a grander but in some ways more conventional film score. With its variations on Irish-style melodies, Miller’s Crossing sounds some lovely musical themes that sound perfectly suited to a movie that wants to be a respectable Oscar nominee – and don’t quite prepare you for the film’s brutal violence and merciless betrayals.

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Perhaps Miller’s Crossing's most iconic use of music involves “Danny Boy” by Irish tenor Frank Patterson, which plays while Leo O’Bannon (Albert Finney) fends off some heavily armed assassins. “Danny Boy” is such an Irish standard that using it seems almost like a campy joke, but at the same time, it certainly measures up to the Leo’s oversized perception of himself. As he wields a Tommy gun here, he could be the Irish answer to Al Pacino's Tony Montana.

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Burwell crafted another classic “old movie” score for The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) – maybe too good. Hudsucker’s opening theme is so soaring, luxuriant and romantic that it doesn’t quite fit the movie’s snappy, screwball patter. (Fun fact: The movie Ice Age: The Meltdown uses the music when Scrat goes to squirrel heaven.) More appropriate for Hudsucker’s corporate spoof is the bouncy score for the hula-hoop marketing sequence, which makes the sales of a silly toy seem like an archetype of American industry. Khachaturian’s familiarly frantic “Saber Dance” at the end gives it a particularly zesty comic sting.

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The Coens' Oscar-winning Midwestern noir Fargo (1996) features arguably Burwell’s finest music. With its soaring, dramatic strains in the backgrounds, the film’s petty, futile crimes and cruelties seem to elevate to tragic status. That’s a frequent characteristic of music in the Coens' dramas or comedies -- they make the characters and their actions seem bigger and more archetypal than the simple facts would lead you to believe. With Burwell’s music, Fargo’s opening shot of one car towing another through the snow feels like a portent of doom, even more ominous than the literal biker of the apocalypse in Raising Arizona. Here's the dialogue-free trailer:

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The Big Lebowski’s (1998) use of familiar and half-forgotten pop songs no doubt contributes to its cult status. The Gipsy King’s “Hotel California” makes a melodramatic counterpoint to the absurdity of John Turturro’s bowling champ/sex offender -- and has hidden meaning, because Jeff Bridges’ slacker hero “The Dude” hates the Eagles. Lebowski reaches its musical pinnacle thanks to Kenny Rogers and the First Edition’s “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In),” which manages to convey both 1960s drug culture and film’s porno context while scoring a surreal musical number worthy of cartoonist Robert Crumb.

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T. Bone Burnett is credited as The Big Lebowski’s “music bibliographer” and served a similar role for O Brother Where Art Thou (2000), a screwball Depression-era take on Homer’s Odyssey. O Brother is very nearly a full-fledged musical, with the characters frequently crooning bluegrass, gospel and blues hits of the period, which they call “old-timey music.” O Brother’s songs became such a phenomenon that it seems scarcely worth describing in detail, spawning a hit, Burnett-produced soundtrack and a concert film, Down From the Mountain. This clip, of Ralph Stanley’s “O Death,” stands out for its blend of sinister vocals and comic, choreographed Klansmen (an homage to the Wicked Witch’s marching helpers in The Wizard of Oz). Since the Coens’ movies tend to be “self-contained worlds,” perhaps they should do more musicals in the future.

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Mostly Beethoven piano sonatas play in the Coens' follow-up foray in film noir, The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001). The delicate classical music suits the characters and situations, with Scarlett Johansson playing an innocent piano student, whose serene music provides a counterpoint to the flat emotions of Billy Bob Thornton’s murderer. Still, combined with Billy Bob Thornton’s level narration and the pale, black-and-white photography, the film feels a little bloodless. Note: This artful clip reveals the film’s last two minutes, so don’t click if you don’t want to see what happens.

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Let’s finish with The Ladykillers (2004), since the music is possibly the best thing about it. Teaming up with T. Bone again, the Coens seemed less interested in remaking the Alec Guinness comedy than in exploring black gospel stylings, as if offering an African-American version of the O Brother soundtrack. This extended performance of “Trouble of This World” by the Abbot Kinney Lighthouse Choir from the Ladykillers DVD will play us out.

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