(Photo courtesy Universal Pictures)
One of the striking aspects of the Coen brothersâ 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 itâs 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 itâs gone, hereâs 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. Burwellâs insistent, moody piano score may not be as memorable as the violent film noirâs 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 Cageâs wry narration as petty hood H.I. McDonough finds an exuberant counterpoint in Burwellâs racing banjo music, whistles and yodeling. Maybe the countrified strains mock the filmâs 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 filmâs use of Beethovenâs âOde to Joyâ derives from Pete Seegerâs âGoofing-Off Suite.â) This clip offers a taste, and reminds you how much NBC's âMy Name Is Earlâ owes to Raising Arizona.
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With the Irish vs. Italian gang war of Millerâs Crossing (1990), Burwell presented a grander but in some ways more conventional film score. With its variations on Irish-style melodies, Millerâs Crossing sounds some lovely musical themes that sound perfectly suited to a movie that wants to be a respectable Oscar nominee â and donât quite prepare you for the filmâs brutal violence and merciless betrayals.
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Perhaps Millerâs Crossing's most iconic use of music involves âDanny Boyâ by Irish tenor Frank Patterson, which plays while Leo OâBannon (Albert Finney) fends off some heavily armed assassins. âDanny Boyâ 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 Leoâs 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 âold movieâ score for The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) â maybe too good. Hudsuckerâs opening theme is so soaring, luxuriant and romantic that it doesnât quite fit the movieâs snappy, screwball patter. (Fun fact: The movie Ice Age: The Meltdown uses the music when Scrat goes to squirrel heaven.) More appropriate for Hudsuckerâs 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. Khachaturianâs familiarly frantic âSaber Danceâ at the end gives it a particularly zesty comic sting.
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The Coens' Oscar-winning Midwestern noir Fargo (1996) features arguably Burwellâs finest music. With its soaring, dramatic strains in the backgrounds, the filmâs petty, futile crimes and cruelties seem to elevate to tragic status. Thatâs 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 Burwellâs music, Fargoâs 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 Lebowskiâs (1998) use of familiar and half-forgotten pop songs no doubt contributes to its cult status. The Gipsy Kingâs âHotel Californiaâ makes a melodramatic counterpoint to the absurdity of John Turturroâs bowling champ/sex offender -- and has hidden meaning, because Jeff Bridgesâ slacker hero âThe Dudeâ hates the Eagles. Lebowski reaches its musical pinnacle thanks to Kenny Rogers and the First Editionâs âJust Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In),â which manages to convey both 1960s drug culture and filmâs 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 Lebowskiâs âmusic bibliographerâ and served a similar role for O Brother Where Art Thou (2000), a screwball Depression-era take on Homerâs 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 âold-timey music.â O Brotherâs 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 Stanleyâs âO Death,â stands out for its blend of sinister vocals and comic, choreographed Klansmen (an homage to the Wicked Witchâs marching helpers in The Wizard of Oz). Since the Coensâ movies tend to be âself-contained worlds,â 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 Wasnât 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 Thorntonâs murderer. Still, combined with Billy Bob Thorntonâs level narration and the pale, black-and-white photography, the film feels a little bloodless. Note: This artful clip reveals the filmâs last two minutes, so donât click if you donât want to see what happens.
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Letâs 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 âTrouble of This Worldâ by the Abbot Kinney Lighthouse Choir from the Ladykillers DVD will play us out.
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