The Music of the Coen Brothers – Part III

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


“You should change into a suit.”

Joel and Ethan Coen’s previous film won four of its eight Oscar nominations. They followed the most acclaimed – and bleakest – film of their career with a return to what they do better than anyone – a screwball black comedy based on an original story.

In fact, Burn After Reading (2008) was the first film based on an original story by Joel and Ethan Coen since 2001’s The Man Who Wasn’t There.

Part of Burn After Reading’s genius is in casting the A-list ensemble as total idiots. George Clooney, Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton and Richard Jenkins all excel as earnest people with small, insignificant lives.

The film is a playful homage to the genre of Cold War spy movies.

Civilians Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand accidently find a copy of what they believe to be top-secret information belonging to a high level CIA agent. In fact, their find is merely the inconsequential memoirs of a disgruntled analyst with a drinking problem and an abusive, philandering, wife.

The characters are all idiots, on an idiotic mission. But they believe they are in real danger, involved in high-level espionage.

To reflect this, Carter Burwell’s score is a sincere homage to 1960s espionage films, scored by design from the characters’ point of view. Joel Coen explained they wanted the score to be “big and bombastic, something important sounding but absolutely meaningless.”

Burwell was particularly inspired by Jerry Goldsmith’s percussion-heavy score to the spy thriller Seven Days In May (1964).

The film uses no source music, instead relying entirely on the original score to set the atmosphere. However, in one scene Clooney sings a few bars of “Born Free” in the shower, the Matt Monroe song from the 1966 film of the same name.

Although the brothers insist the film is not a direct satire of DC, the nation’s capital is a perfect setting for the story. The characters all exist within the Beltway Bubble, yet outside of it. In DC, mere civilians are as inconsequential as the government workers who hang around the lower rungs in a town defined by status and power.

In some ways, Burn After Reading is equally a comment on the vacuity of mass entertainment – be it blockbuster films, local morning television, fitness culture and even online dating.

The scenes with J.K. Simmons in the CIA office have an intentional Kubrickesque feel. Whenever we are inside the cold, administrative belly of the CIA office there is a noticeable omnipresent hum from the fluorescent lights. The final scene, in which Simmons ruminates on the pointlessness of the preceding escapade, seems a playful nod to the controversial ending to No Country For Old Men, the brothers’ previous film, in which there are no answers.

“I’m a rational man.”

 A Serious Man (2009) remains the Coen brothers’ most personal film. The quiet story of suburban Midwestern Jews set in 1967 is both an affectionate look back at a specific time and place dear to the brothers’ own experiences, as well as an exercise in misanthropy.

Physics professor Larry Gopnik cannot catch a break, facing crises on all fronts: home, work, health and faith. His attempts to seek answers are thwarted at every turn.

The Coens had already explored their homeland in the dark wintry comedy-noir of Fargo. For their most overtly autobiographical film, the brothers chose to set this Minnesota story among the blooming greens of Spring.

Green and blue hues color the subdued film – from the lawns and foliage to the clothing, furniture and even the light reflected in Larry’s glasses – adding to the rich but muted pallet of the period art direction.

The recreating of this specific time came down to the source music as well. Jefferson Airplane, and specifically “Somebody to Love,” was chosen as a representation of not just the 1960s generally, but the spring of 1967 specifically.

The constant contrast of Jefferson Airplane with the cantorial music and Yiddish ballads, such as Sidor Belarsky’s “Dem Milner’s Trern,” which plays on the Gopnik household Hi-Fi, helps accentuate the dichotomy of the experiences of Jews in the midcentury Midwest.

For the score, Burwell composed a repetitive, elusive polyrhythmic harp motif, designed to capture Larry’s trapped life. The composer explains on his website:

“He’s blocked at every point in his personal, professional, and spiritual life. And there’s something about the delicacy of the harp that I think on the one hand seems sympathetic to this character’s travails, but on the other hand is a little bit funny, because in fact none of these characters reveals any delicacy whatsoever.”

Beginning with No Country For Old Men, the Coens made a string of well-crafted films with anti-endings. A Serious Man is no different. Larry’s faith has been tested without redemption. The revered and elusive elder rabbi is exposed as not having all the answers. Larry’s decision to finally take the easy, unethical, way out of his professional dilemma coincides with a vaguely sinister message from his doctor all set against the backdrop of a coming storm.

The film tips its hand toward this doomed arc in its opening vignette, where a dybbuk, a spirit of Jewish folklore, is invited across the threshold. Larry’s doom is not so much death itself, but the purgatory of his life.

Earlier in the film, as a turntable needle reaches the end of a record, the repetitive sound of the stuck needle is looped in the soundtrack, reappearing briefly at the conclusion of the credits.

“I do not entertain hypotheticals. The world as it is is vexing enough.”

In their career thus far, the Coen brothers had mastered screwball, musical, romantic and black comedy, gangland drama, period homage, stoner cult classic, black and white and neo noir, spy thriller, and autobiography. With True Grit (2010), they mastered the Western – an almost extinct, albeit essential, film genre.

Their True Grit is a remake of the 1969 Western of the same name staring John Wayne, Glen Campbell and Kim Darby, which itself was based on the 1968 Charles Portis novel. 14-year-old Mattie Ross hires the alcoholic and ornery U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn to pursue and capture her father’s killer. Along the way Mattie learns hard life lessons while allowing Cogburn a rare human connection and a chance at redemption.

Rooster Cogburn is a tragic hero. The thing that makes him great – his grit – is the same thing that tortures him and thus, through booze, becomes his weakness.

John Wayne’s iconic, Oscar-winning performance as the ageing, grizzled Cogburn is a tough act to follow, but Jeff Bridges rises to the occasion. Bridges’ Cogburn is true to the spirit of the character, with neither plagiaristic nor derisive reference to Wayne’s creation.

Composer Carter Burwell knew he wanted to use 19th-century hymns as a musical reference, to capture the “biblical sense of righteousness” he felt was driving the Mattie Ross character. Rather than listening to Elmer Berstein’s classic score to the 1969 film, he instead poured through old hymnbooks.

The resulting score uses or references the 19th-century Protestant American hymns “What A Friend We Have In Jesus,” “The Glory-Land Way,” “Hold To God’s Unchanging Hand,” “Talk About Suffering” and, most significantly, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” which becomes Mattie’s theme. (“Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” is also the hymn creepily sung by Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter.)

In the opening sequence, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” is plucked out quietly on a piano, accompanying the image on screen like a music box in a snow globe. Most of the score follows in this quiet, understated way.

For the river crossing and shootout scenes, Burwell employs a more traditional full orchestra in homage to traditional Western scores akin to those of Dimitri Tiomkin.

While the Coens are clearly film fanatics, they rarely express this love with nostalgia, choosing instead to exercise tribute through cynicism and genre manipulation. As much as they would like us to believe otherwise, the Coens’ True Grit is as much a faithful retelling of the 1969 film as it is an original adaptation of the novel.

While the Coens make multiple changes – including skillfully cutting the entire opening sequence, reducing it to a simple vignette without losing any of its purpose or effect – much of the 2010 film is a shot by shot recreation of the 1969 film.

The magnificent courtroom sequence in the Coens’ version, for example, which displays some of the most beautiful lighting in all film, is taken from the 1969 version, albeit to new technical heights.

Even the music is inspired in ways by the original film. For the most part, Burwell forgoes the elaborate orchestral score in favor of quiet hymns. But in the 1969 film, the townspeople sing “Amazing Grace” at the hanging, thus marrying the sounds of 19th-century Protestant hymns to the imagery of this story.

Where the Coens differ from the 1969 film is in tone. The 1969 film was the last of a certain kind of Western. In many ways it plays more like a film from 1959 than 1969. It has heart. The incongruous image of John Wayne playing an ageing anti-hero is heightened by an old-fashioned approach to filmmaking set in a tumultuous era of change. Consider that Dennis Hopper, who plays Moon, appeared in True Grit the same year he made Easy Rider. Westerns from the same year include The Wild Bunch, Once Upon A Time in the West, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Westerns were changing and True Grit, with its opening credits synched to the accompanying hit song, and Wayne’s triumphant, wintry freeze-frame ending, was a last gasp.

The Coens present their True Grit with a conscious realism, even as the photography captures sometimes fantastical images. There is still heart in the relationship between Rooster and Mattie, especially in the final scene as he rushes her to safety. The story should have ended there, among the candlelit windows in the snow, a reference to the opening scene.

Instead, they tack on the superfluous ending from the novel. The Coens finally give us redemption, only to render it impotent with the gratuitous epilogue, meant, perhaps, as consequence.

The best Westerns are morality plays, universal explorations of humanity, where philosophy is worked out against a state of nature. It is a shame the genre is all but dead, as Westerns are a perfect vehicle to comment on our society at any given time.

Perhaps their near extinction in the modern world is itself a comment.

The Coen brothers’ True Grit is no hypothetical Western – no mere clever exercise in genre manipulation. It is the real deal, a legitimate link in the chain of an original American art form. Their True Grit sits rightfully alongside Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven as one of a handful of truly great modern Westerns, taking the genre forward into new territories, even turning it on its head, while remaining grounded in its ethos.

“I don’t see a lot of money here.”

 Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) is the Coen brothers’ most overtly musical film since O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000). And, like O Brother, there is no Carter Burwell original score. Instead, the Coens again enlist T-Bone Burnett to oversee the critical music.

The story is set in Greenwich Village in the winter of 1961 (the winter Bob Dylan first hit town – “the coldest winter in seventeen years”).

The character of Llewyn Davis, played by Oscar Isaac, is loosely based on Village troubadour Dave Van Ronk, a celebrated figurehead of the Greenwich Village folk scene in the years preceding the scene-altering arrival of the young Dylan and the mass commercialization of polite and polished folk acts such as the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul and Mary.

The fictional Llewyn Davis character differs significantly from the real life Van Ronk in terms of personality. Davis is selfish and small, while by all accounts Van Ronk was jovial and well liked. (For an artist whose entire oeuvre was essentially eclipsed by Dylan, Van Ronk comes off as humble and affable in his interviews for the Martin Scorsese Dylan documentary, No Direction Home.)

Where Davis and Van Ronk meet is in the music. Davis’ songs and style are taken directly from Van Ronk, and are used to great effect in the film, especially when contrasted with the commercial folk music the film lampoons (in an only slightly less comical variation than the Christopher Guest folk music sendup A Mighty Wind).

In fact, the only real humor in Inside Llewyn Davis comes from the songs and segments involving Justin Timberlake, who plays Davis’ folk music friend and nemesis. Perhaps the funniest being the scene where they record the Space Race novelty song, “Please Mr. Kennedy.”

“Please Mr. Kennedy” is a reworking of an early Vietnam protest song of the same name from 1961 by Mickey Woods, later covered by folk duo The Goldcoast Singers, which itself is based on a 1960 novelty song by Larry Verne called “Mr. Custer.”

As with all of his performances in the film, “Please Mr. Kennedy” is performed live by Isaac, Timberlake and Adam Driver.

Other commentary on the vacuity of commercialized folk music comes in the form of the ballad “500 Miles,” as performed by Timberlake and his trio, based on the version by Peter, Paul and Mary. Davis suffers their polite, meaningless – and crowd pleasing – performance with barely contained disdain.

While a beautiful ballad, the song in the hands of Peter, Paul and Mary (and the fictional trio in the film) is an empty, sanitized story. So little is said with so many words:

Lord, I’m one, Lord, I’m two, Lord, I’m three, Lord, I’m four

Lord, I’m five hundred miles from my home

Five hundred miles, five hundred miles, five hundred miles, five hundred miles

Lord, I’m five hundred miles from my home


Compare to Bobby Bare’s country hit version from the following year.

Teardrops fell on mama’s note, when I read the things she wrote

She said we miss you son, we love you come on home

Well I didn’t have to pack, I had it all right on my back

Now I’m 500 miles away from home


The performances, period direction and music supervision are all exceptional, and the brothers somehow manage to capture a kind of nostalgia for the period without romanticizing it. The film is beautifully photographed, particularly the sequences involving John Goodman’s heroin-addled jazz musician who is shot from behind in an obvious reference to Orson Welles’ Hank Quinlan from his 1958 B-noir masterpiece Touch of Evil. But the Touch of Evil reference, as wonderfully shot as it is, seems incongruous in this story.

Llewyn Davis’ only redeeming qualities come in his affection for his friends’ cat, which he cares for while simultaneously comparing the abortion of his unborn baby to his forgone royalties. The cat (which references Gabriel Byrne’s hat in Miller’s Crossing), we learn, is named Ulysses. But the Homeric reference only reminds us of the futility of Llewyn Davis’s saga.

The deficiency with Inside Llewyn Davis is not that its protagonist is unlikeable. There is an appealing vulnerability to Davis. The problem is that Llewyn Davis as a character has no arc. He doesn’t learn anything. He doesn’t gain anything. He doesn’t even lose anything. His existence is as empty as his artistry, which, while proficient and often pleasant, ultimately has nothing to say.

“Does he have a higher function?,” Llewyn Davis quips as the kid in a Kingston Trio style striped shirt sings a pretty, empty song. For different reasons, the same thing can be asked of Inside Llewyn Davis. The Coens are certainly not selling out their artistry to make a commercial film here – far from it. But the effort ultimately leaves the viewer – even one predisposed to enjoy a film about a tortured, self-destructive and serious artist railing against folk music phonies and a deaf society – so unsatisfied as to wonder what was the point.

“Would that it were so simple.”

The most recent film in the Coen brothers’ canon at the time of this writing leaves us at a logical conclusion.

Hail, Caesar! is a paradox. The Coen brothers are independent filmmakers – in every sense of the phrase – who would have failed horribly under the studio system, if they were ever granted entrée. They notoriously buck sentimentality and nostalgia in favor of cynicism and cleverness. And yet, here they present an almost love letter to the dead genres of the classic Hollywood studio system with genuine affection for its craft, and in so doing pay tribute to the studio system itself.

It is obvious why the studio system gets a bad rap from a modern perspective. It was designed for the mass production of pictures with little regard for independent creativity or experimentation. Yet, the studio system is responsible for some of the most magnificent films in history. Even detractors marvel at the level of craftsmanship involved in making these grandiose films in an era of comparatively primitive special effects, limitations that fostered untold creativity. Filmmaking remains a team sport, even among the most independent auteurs, and the studio system was a perfectly designed machine for its purpose.

Hail, Caesar! follows 24 hours in the life of protagonist studio fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) as he puts out fires across the studio lot, while weighing a life-changing decision, ducking into the confessional for comfort, his only refuge. In going about his day, he visits several different movie sets. This allows the Coens to present several bits of films-within-the-film. There is a Biblical epic ala Ben-Hur, a campy singing cowboy Western in the style of Hopalong Cassidy (complete with a Walter Brennan character), a Gene Kelly-inspired musical, and an “aquamusical” in the style of Esther Williams.

Hail, Caesar! is not an homage to classic film – it is an exercise in creating, or recreating, lost genre.

Ethan Coen said in an interview with Time Out:

“When we look at some of those movies we think: Wow, that level of craftsmanship is fantastic. Many of the reviews of Hail, Caesar!  – good and bad – say it’s spoofing or parodying or satirizing. What the fuck? I don’t understand that. Look at the Channing Tatum dance number. We’re not spoofing. We’re trying to do a good dance number!’”

To create these sequences, the brothers essentially reverse engineered classic film production techniques no longer used. “We were, partially, using new technology to essentially recreate things and effects that were done a long time ago in a different way,” said Joel in the same interview.

This is reflected in the music. Carter Burwell delivers a tour de force score, essentially scoring not only Hail, Caesar! the 2016 Coen film but also Hail, Caesar! the Biblical epic within the film, in addition to all the other films-within-the-film, each requiring dramatically different music. He interjected pieces of the same melody throughout the different scores in order to create a subtle, if subconscious, cohesiveness.

In addition to the prevalent score, there are songs and source music throughout the film. Most notably is the original song, “No Dames,” written in the style of a Gene Kelly tap-dance number, performed in the film by Channing Tatum. The song was written for the film by Henry Krieger and Willie Reale.

“Lazy Old Moon,” the song from the singing cowboy picture in Hail, Caser!, was written by Walter G. Samuels and originally appeared in the 1939 Roy Rogers film Arizona Kid. The version used in Hail, Caser! is performed by Willie Watson.

For the scene with the Soviet submarine, Burwell uses a mix of period recordings by the Red Army Chorus with an original Soviet-style march theme.

For the stunning “aquamusical” number recreation, Burwell uses “Belle nuit, ô nuit d’amour” from the Jacques Offenbach opera, The Tales of Hoffmann.

Other source songs include Eddy Arnold’s “Cattle Call” on the car radio and Hobie and Carlotta sing a few bars of the Billy Hill-penned “Glory of Love” on their studio-arranged date, which was also used to close the 2003 romantic comedy Intolerable Cruelty.

The entire film is one big reference to film: from the Big Sleep opening to the “Merry Widow Waltz,” referencing Hitchcock’s Shadow of A Doubt, to the name of the Carmen Miranda inspired character, Carlotta Valdez, a Vertigo reference. They even reference themselves by recreating the waves crashing over the rocks of Barton Fink, which told the story of a playwright-come-screenwriter lost in the world of the same fictitious studio, Capitol Pictures.

Its warmth, heart and humor, captured in the music, are a welcome antidote to their more sardonic recent efforts. Showcasing the brothers’ unabashed love of all film, Hail, Caesar! is in some ways as personal a film for Joel and Ethan Coen as A Serious Man.

Their prestige picture.


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