The Music of the Coen Brothers – Part II

This is the second installment in a three-part series. Read part one here.


“The law? Law is a human institution.”

The Invocation of the Muse, swinging picks building into rhythm, human voices chanting in song – the sound of the men working on the chain gang. Black men in black and white stripes, washed out color film.

And so the Coen Brothers begin the new millennium with a retelling of Homer’s The Odyssey, set in Depression-era Mississippi – as a musical comedy.

Smooth talking Ulysses Everett McGill escapes from the chain gang (for practicing law without a license), shackled to two dimwitted fellow convicts. He is set on a journey home to see his estranged wife, Penny, and their daughters.

Along the way they encounter a blind prophet on the railroad, real-life delta bluesman Tommy Johnson (who, like his better-known namefellow Robert, allegedly sold his soul to the devil), Lotus-eaters in the form of a mass baptism in the river (the Coens continuously mash up Homer’s Greek traditions with the Christian themes of the film’s Southern setting) washerwomen Sirens, a Cyclops Bible salesman and the Ku Klux Klan (robed as white sheep) all while being pursued by the empty-eyed Poseidon devil, in the form of a relentless Sherriff in shades.

They even manage to record an unlikely hit record.

Like all the music in O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), “I Am A Man of Constant Sorrow” is a traditional folk song of the American South. The song dates back to the turn of the last century, but was popularized in the 1950s by the Stanley Brothers. In the early 1960s it became a folk staple. Bob Dylan included a version on his debut album.

The version of “Man of Constant Sorrow” used in O Brother, Where Art Thou? – which in the film becomes the fictional Soggy Bottom Boys’ big hit record, leading to their eventual saving grace – became an actual hit in real life following the film’s release. The powerhouse vocal was by Dan Tyminski, until then best known as the mandolin and guitar player in Alison Krauss’ band, Union Station. Harley Allen and Pat Enright round out the other voices of the Soggy Bottom Boys. Their version from the film won a CMA and a Grammy in 2002.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? is the first Coen Brothers’ film without a Carter Burwell original score. Instead, T-Bone Burnett, who oversaw much of the source music in The Big Lebowski, curated the traditional Appalachian songs that would make up the almost constant musical soundtrack.

The music was conceived and recorded prior to filming, featuring modern recordings of traditional songs by prominent Nashville-based roots musicians, including Gillian Welch, Alison Kruass, Emmylou Harris, The Whites, and Ralph Stanley himself, who gives a haunting (and Grammy Award winning) a capella rendition of “O, Death,” sung in the film by the KKK Grand Wizard as Klansmen swirl around like sharks.

The film borrows equally from Preston Sturges – specifically, his 1941 classic Sullivan’s Travels – as it does from Homer. Sullivan’s Travels, named in homage to the Jonathan Swift classic Gulliver’s Travels, itself a Homeric tale, tells the story of John L. Sullivan, a successful film director who sets out with ten cents in his pocket in order to understand the common man as preparation for his next film. The name of the film he is working on? – O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Both films begin with what is essentially an invocation of the muse on title cards. Sullivan ends up on a Southern chain gang, as do our protagonists in the Coen film. The chain gang in Sturges’ film is brought into a black church where they are allowed to watch a film, as the congregation sings “Go Down Moses.” The Coens recreate this exact scenario with a movie theater instead of a church in O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Sullivan ultimately discovers that there is honor in the escapism of comedy, that people want to laugh. They need it. “It isn’t much but it’s all some people have in this cockeyed caravan.”

Sturges’ influence on the Coens is everywhere. It’s in the sound (in one scene in Sullivan’s Travels we hear a steady hammering, which is eventually revealed to be a cash register). It’s in the camera angles and framing, the projected lighting. It’s in the fascination with law and legal procedure (in the brilliantly filmed courtroom scene, shot out of focus from the confused Sullivan’s point of view, the public defender is an almost word-for-word template of the low-rent defense attorney in the Coens’ next film, The Man Who Wasn’t There). It’s in the absurd asides and colorful character roles. It’s in the films’ contained worlds.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? ignited a traditional Appalachian music revival phenomenon. The soundtrack album won multiple awards, sold eight million copies and pretty much single handedly financed Lost Highway Records. Several spinoff albums followed including O Sister, O Sister 2, and O Bluegrass. Even Disney got in on the action with O Mickey, Where Art Thou?

The most substantive spinoff came with Down From the Mountain, a concert tour featuring many of the artists from the soundtrack, which was also made into a concert film and accompanying soundtrack album.

The music associated with O Brother, Where Art Thou? became its own brief unforeseen industry, as these rural songs of despair resonated among the suburban middle-class at the beginning of the 21st century.

“Me, I don’t talk much. I just cut the hair.”

If ever there was a time for the Coens to make a quiet black and white film, coming fresh off the commercial trifecta of FargoThe Big LebowskiO Brother, Where Art Thou? was that time.

The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001) is a beautifully photographed and stylized film noir, with occasional Preston Sturges-style absurdist comedy and a haunting soundtrack featuring some of Ludwig Van Beethoven’s better-known piano sonatas.

Billy Bob Thornton’s brilliantly understated barber is emotionally detached from the world: detached from his wife, who is having an affair with her boss, from his own boss, who is his wife’s brother, and from his customers. The only thing that connects with him on any level is the piano playing of a teenage girl (Scarlett Johansson) upon whom he projects all of his failures in a desperate and hopeless attempt at some kind of escape, if not salvation.

When he first hears her, afterhours in the piano section of a department store, she is playing the second movement to Beethoven’s Pathétique, Piano Sonata No. 8 in C minor. “He was deaf when he wrote this,” she says.

Aside from the Beethoven sonatas, there is Carter Burwell’s original score, at times plaintive, at times discordant. There are also long periods of no music, especially at night in the quiet town when the chirping of the crickets can be heard in the distance.

The Coens in their photography do here to the barber shop what they did to the bowling alley in The Big Lebowski – presenting daily mundane respites as poetry: the tile, the powder, the cascading clips of hair.

The Man Who Wasn’t There adheres to the first rule of film noir – one improper, albeit rationalized, action unravels a cascading series of tragic events. Here, Ed the barber attempts to blackmail his wife’s boss in order to raise the funds needed to start his own dry cleaning business, in a futile attempt to take some sort of control of his life. The way he figures it, they have it coming for their blatant affair. This single deed spirals out of control, leading to the ruination of the barber shop, the loss of his house, and the deaths of four people, including himself.

Quite an impact from a man who otherwise passes through his world like a ghost – inconsequential, impervious and invisible.

“The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in the stars but in ourselves.”

 For their next film, the Coens began work on an adaptation of James Dickey’s novel To The White Sea. Brad Pitt was cast to play the American airman shot down over Tokyo during World War II. What little dialog there was would be in Japanese. A great deal of time and money had been invested in the project when it was ultimately scrapped for lack of financing. Even with Pitt attached, it was deemed too ambitious and not commercially viable.

Intolerable Cruelty (2003) was essentially made on the rebound, and it shows. It would be considered high in the canon of lesser filmmakers, but coming off the staggering run of Fargo-The Big Lebowski-O Brother, Where Art Thou?-The Man Who Wasn’t There, Intolerable Cruelty was a disappointment.

The screenplay was originally written by Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone, based on an idea by John Romano. Joel and Ethan rewrote the script without planning to direct it. Intolerable Cruelty suffers from this lack of cohesiveness and, with four people credited as writer, it comes off as too many cooks resurrecting a lukewarm broth.

It does; however, have wonderful and very funny moments. George Clooney is brilliant in playing the fool, never taking himself too seriously when working with the Coens. As with his character in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, he has an ability to play suave on the surface, with his facial expressions betraying the fact that he knows he is in over his head.

For the score, Burwell composed a light, jazzy Mancini-esque theme that reinforces this levity.

One of the few overtly Coen-esque scenes in the film is when we are allowed into the office of Herb, the senior partner at the law film. His office is cavernous, dark, lacking in light or joy. Herb, 87, is hooked up to a series of medical devices keeping him alive so that he can continue in what he has reduced his sole purpose in life to be – billing hours. For this sequence, Burwell scores an ominous chant-like choral motif.

The source music, supervised by David Diliberto, includes Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer” played over the opening sequence, followed by Elvis’ “Suspicious Minds” over the opening credits, closing with Big Bill Broonzy’s version of the Billy Hill-penned standard “The Glory of Love.”

“The literature of the so-called ‘dead tongues’ holds more currency than this morning’s newspaper.”

 The Ladykillers (2004) is not a great film. But it could have been. The Coens followed up the disappointing Intolerable Cruelty with a remake of the classic 1955 Ealing Studios black comedy starring Alec Guiness and a young Peter Sellers. The influence on the Coens – not just on their remake, but on their entire style – is prominent in the original Ladykillers, especially in the framing, the characters and the almost animated studio world the film creates.

The Coens again enlist the services of T-Bone Burnett to supervise the source music, primary southern gospel, which is accompanied by Carter Burwell’s original score. The film opens (and closes) with Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers’ recording of “Come, Let Us Go Back to God.” This sets the tone of the Mississippi locale as well as the religious imagery that cloaks the film. The trash barge in the flowing Mississippi River – taking the part of the London railroad tracks – creates a cyclical symbolism that opens and closes our story.

Irma P. Hall’s Marva Munson lives in the shadow of her deceased husband, Otha, who looks down judgingly from his giant portrait above the fireplace. Otha’s name is an homage to the late Otha Turner, a Hill Country bluesman and ambassador of a little-known and near extinct American musical tradition – the fife and drum blues (in one scene, Marva, assuming Hanks’ professor to be a learned musician, shows him her late husband’s fife).

Contemporary source music comes from Dirty South hip-hop artists Nappy Roots and Little Brother (each sampling traditional gospel music) and A Tribe Called Quest’s “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo” is used as a recurring joke.

Tom Hanks, in the Alec Guinness role, creates a comical but complex character – a socially awkward, intellectual con man, genuinely moved by refined art. Burwell scores a gentle, emotive piano theme as Hanks’ professor recites the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe (“To Helen,” perhaps another Homeric reference).

The problem with The Ladykillers is that the ancillary roles – which should be scene-steeling brilliant as in all other Coen films – fall horribly flat. Only Tzi Ma’s General earns his keep, and he is not consistently funny. Even J. K. Simmons, one of the most brilliant character actors of our time, is weak. This reflects lazy writing as much as poor performance. The pedestrian, and incessant, IBS jokes and witless exchanges between Simmons and Marlon Wayans are unbecoming of the pen of Joel and Ethan Coen.

Both Ladykillers films rely heavily on slapstick, but the Coens’ remake falls prey to one-dimensional gags rather than the more playful and clever double crossings of the original.

The Ladykillers is frustrating because so much of it works, especially the music. But, ultimately, it remains fatally flawed.

“A human comedy of sorts, on a grand tapestry.”

After The Ladykillers, the Coen Brothers did not make another feature for three years. In that time they made two shorts.

Paris, je t’aime (2006) features 18 short films, each by a different director, and each representing a different Paris arrondissement. The Coens were given the 1st arrondissement in their five-and-a-half-minute short, Tuileries, which takes place in the Tuileries metro station. Steve Bucemi plays an American tourist fresh from the Louvre who inadvertently gets himself mixed up with two local lovers.

It is perfectly filmed with that inimitable Coen humor. The omnipresent music comes from a busker on the metro platform who is playing guitar. The song he is playing is “El Paseo” by Pedro Cortes.

World Cinema (2007) is a three-minute short included in another French anthology, Chacun son cinema (To Each His Own Cinema). This short is filmed at the Aero Theater in Santa Monica and stars Josh Brolin dressed as a cowboy (foreshadowing his character in their next film). There is no music in World Cinema, instead the sounds of the passing traffic on Montana Ave serve as soundtrack.

Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers were consecutive disappointments, and they remain collectively at the bottom of the Coens’ canon. One was based on a pre-existing screenplay, the other a remake of a pre-existing film. It was clear the filmmakers had hit a slump, followed by over three years of inactivity. Had they run out of ideas?

“You can’t stop what’s comin’. It ain’t all waitin’ on you. That’s vanity.”

“That is no country for old men” – the opening line to William Butler Yeats’ poem, “Sailing to Byzantium,” sets the scene. In the poem, Yeats ruminates on ageing and, like Tommy Lee Jones’ Sheriff, on “Those dying generations – at their song.”

In his opening monolog (a return to a signature Coen device), Jones expresses his admiration for the old-timers, the great lawmen who tamed the West. He tries to reconcile his West with the modern world, where “sir” and “ma’am” are fading out of fashion, where kids walk down the street with green hair, and where evil manifests itself in hitherto unimaginable ways.

No Country For Old Men (2007) – based on Cormac McCarthy’s novel – is the third Coen film in a row originating from a pre-existing source. But unlike its immediate predecessors, No Country For Old Men is a masterpiece.

The story centers on three men: Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), the noir protagonist whose momentary lack of judgment leads ultimately to his demise (here, although he did keep the found drug money, it is not an act of wrong but one of conscious – bringing water to a dying man – that seals his fate), Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), the hit man who personifies evil – relentless and immutable as the unleashed dogs of hell, and Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Jones), the archetype of the old-time Western lawman, consumed by twin pangs of duty and disbelief, unable to process the horrors of the modern world.

Carter Burwell’s score, voiced with Tibetan singing bowls, goes practically unnoticed. This overt lack of music serves to heighten the tension in the same manner as Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), which famously forgoes any musical score in favor of ominous bird noises.

Burwell’s score is so subtle it reveals itself in only a few instances, usually associated with Bardem’s character. The first audible music in the film slides in as we see the car hood – and sinister hood ornament – from Chigurh’s point of view (although we have not yet met him). There is the slightest little bass riff as the car bounces over the rocky terrain.

As always, Burwell harmonizes with Skip Lievsay’s soundtrack. It is often difficult to tell where an electric hum ends and the music begins. In the famous coin toss scene, there is music but one could easily miss it, as Burwell tuned his score to 60-hertz – the same frequency as a refrigerator’s hum.

In addition to creating a subconscious discomfort in the viewer, the minimal score allows the sound cues to evoke emotion. The screech of a suitcase in an air conditioning vent takes on Hitchcockian significance by its mere sound. A transponder blips steady menace, and a ringing telephone horrifies. The rumble of truck engines bring with them fire and brimstone. All of these sounds work together to create a tense quasi-musical soundtrack.

There are only 16 minutes of musical score, most of which is played over the closing credits.

The only overt musical cue comes from the mariachi band that serenades Llewelyn awake, stopping mid-song as they consider his condition as he hands them a blood-stained bill.

From their first film, with its extralegal remedies, the Coens have examined themes of law and justice. With the law usually presented as foolish (Raising Arizona, Intolerable Cruelty) or fascist (Barton Fink, O Brother, Where Art Thou?).

Although No Country For Old Men is set in modern day (1980) civilization, the characters exist in a lawless state of nature. It is almost a Western, further exploring classic Western themes first flirted at in Blood Simple: the ambiguity of justice in an untamed land; a moral code – for good or for evil – the only constant. These themes would be more fully examined three years later, when the brothers would make their bona fide Western.

For now, the Coen Brothers leave us to ponder the futility of life. There is little, if any, redemption in No Country For Old Men. The only morally consistent characters accept their own limitations among passing eras, their fears and frustrations of, as Yeats writes, “what is past, or passing, or to come.”

Since the turning of the new century, Joel and Ethan Coen succeeded in creating a Homeric musical comedy, a black and white noir, and won Oscars for writing, directing and producing a masterful interpretation of an American novel.

What they had not made in a decade; however, was a truly great comedy.


One response

  1. […] This is the third installment in a three-part series. Read part one and part two. […]

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