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The Music of the Coen Brothers – Part II

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

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“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.

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