Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Musings On The Music In The Coen Brothers' Movies: Part I

In anticipation of the Coen brothers’ 16th feature film INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS (opening wide Friday), I am revisiting a 2 part article I wrote for in 2008 concerning the music in their movies, and I’ll be posting a third part update covering their films’ soundtracks in the years that have followed.

INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, about a fictional early '60s folksinger, may be one of their most musically minded movies, but as you can read here music has always been a major factor in their work.

PART I: From the Dark Debut to the Snowblind Breakthrough (1984-1996)

Even the most casual Coen brothers fan has to know how pivotal and perversely precise their soundtracks have to be to match their meticulously crafted movies. To this credit – Carter Burwell, composer on all of their films, has consistently provided scores that are purposely powerful or seethingly subtle (or both) in the fashion of the old time masters like Bernard Herrmann (the Mercury Theater radio shows, CITIZEN KANE, all of Hitchcock’s films, etc.) yet with his own unique and knowingly contemporary edge.

Scores aside, the Coens have utilized many famous and obscure songs from all genres in a Scorsesean manor - jukebox or sing-along tunes with familiar voices and beats that set tones, imply back-stories, and get us toe-tappingly into their tall tales. So let’s look back and listen up to the music in the entire Coen’s canon starting with their cheap but brilliant 1984 debut.

The beginning of the Coen Brothers’ filmography is also the beginning of Carter Burwell’s filmography. A New York born Harvard graduate, Burwell brought his classical piano expertise into the tension building circular spine-tingling key cues in BLOOD SIMPLE.

Discovered in a club playing in a band he joined in college by the Coens’ sound mixer Lee Orloff, Burwell’s sensibilities fit into the brother’s world right off the bat. Echoing many of their actors and collaborators, Burwell commented: “They let me do what I wanted to do. I didn’t get a lot of specific instructions from them.” Because of this, Burwell's piano and ambient synthesizer sounds haunt every dark corner of BLOOD SIMPLE.

Meanwhile the central barroom location has the sound system blaring such standards as the Four Tops “It’s The Same Old Song” (which also plays over the end credits), “Louie Louie” performed by Toots and the Mayals, and Patsy Cline’s “Sweet Dreams” which lighten up the proceedings a bit. The mixture of sinister keyboard stylings with hand-plucked seemingly ironically placed songs had Burwell and the brothers off and running…but in a different direction than anybody could’ve ever predicted.

The Country-fried whistling and yodeling backing the opening sequence of RAISING ARIZONA (1987) declare immediately that we are in different territory – a fast paced screwball comedy terrain, that is, populated by mostly outlaw oddballs who all speak in an eccentric elevated manner of elocution. So to speak, it only seems natural that these folks caught up in a kooky kidnapping caper would be musically accompanied by wizened back porch banjo with said whistlers and wailers. There are also scene washing organ strains and a prominently featured Pete Seeger sample (he’s the yodeler) from “Goofing Off Suite”, originally recorded in 1955. With nothing on the soundtrack even remotely resembling “incidental,” Burwell again proved he was on the same twisted plain as his bosses, but next time out they were going to up the ante.

For the Coens’ third film, MILLER’S CROSSING (1990), the brothers and Burwell decided that it had to have an orchestral score. There was just one problem – Burwell knew nothing about orchestral music. He said to an interviewer at the time that this didn’t faze them and that “I would learn orchestral film music and do it.” By doing so Burwell incorporated the Irish 16th century “Limerick’s Lamentation” into the main theme and the result is stultifying. Jazzy big-band numbers of the 1920’s era like Jelly Roll Morton’s “King Porter Stomp” help illuminate the illusion of the Daschel Hammet derived ambiance.

None of these flourishes though quite beat the incredible scene in which mob boss Leo (Albert Finney) annihilates approaching assassins with a Tommy gun (a Thompson submachine gun) to Frank Patterson’s “Danny Boy”- one of the best and most affecting uses of a pre-existing track in the entire Coens’ canon. Burwell’s focused grasp of orchestral music foreshadows the sweeping build-ups that he would spectacularly develop down one such icy Mid-Western road years later, but I won’t get ahead of myself. The side paths down a wretched writer’s block and the jump over the Hudsucker hurl also predict even later minimalist uses of music.

By BARTON FINK’s opening credit shot, Burwell has got the orchestral deal down without compromising the spare spooky piano tinkling one bit. As another of the Coens’ misunderstood outings, involving a neurotic pretentious playwright (John Turturro) on the brink of either a literary masterpiece or a literal breakdown.

1991's BARTON FINK has at first what appears to be a by-the-book score full of appropriate bombast alternating with below the surface tones and measures fitting to each character and plot manipulation. A closer listen reveals a sound effect-ridden backing track with typewriter noises intertwined with odd piano tunings and an affecting everything-including-the-kitchen-sink cacophony. 

The title character is hopelessly attuned to every little distraction so the score and soundtrack is right there with him. On the song front “Old Black Joe” is drunkenly sung by John Mahoney and Barton dances his ass off after finishing his script, celebrating at a U.S.O. big band dance deal. Otherwise the overlaying doom is pretty obvious in every measure of Burwell’s symphonic sympathy.

Unfairly dissed at the time of its release in 1994, THE HUDSUCKER PROXY has gained many supporters over the years but still, in my opinion, has much more re-appraising to go through. One aspect of the Coens’ return to screwball comedy that barely anybody mentions is its score. That’s a shame, because it’s grand and majestic with a compelling compassion for the characters even at their most pathetic.

Reportedly loosely based on the “Adagio” and “Phrygia” movements of the ballet Spartacus by Aram Khachaturian, the music swells with proper punctuation throughout Tim Robbins’ crazy climb up the corporate ladder. A few perfect-for-period Duke Ellington numbers make the cut too but the icing on the Coens’ cake musically is the cameo by Peter Gallagher as fictitious crooner Vic Tenneta who briefly steals one nightclub scene with his rendition of “Memories Are Made Of This.”

Don’t call it a comeback, but FARGO undoubtedly not only reclaimed their acclaim, lifting the Coen Brothers from cult-only status, while making them a household name. Burwell’s glorious moving fanfare was no small part of the film’s success. In a review of the soundtrack, Jonathan Broxton of Movie Music U.K. wrote “Cleverly, the main theme is based in part on an old Norwegian folk tune (many of Minnesota and Dakota’s inhabitants are of Scandinavian descent, hence the unusual surnames in the film).”

As the film begins, a plaintive mandolin makes out the movement’s melody over the bogus disclaimer “THIS IS A TRUE STORY…” As the screen dissolves into a completely blank white shot of a snow covered landscape the tempo rises with a violin floating the main theme over the black credits (and a lone bird in the distance flying through the flurry) aided by what sounds like a xylophone. As a vehicle emerges over a hill in the center of the frame, defining the horizon, the percussion pounds in and the entire orchestra comes alive. A stark but stirring and excellent beginning in a career filled with excellent beginnings.

As the vehicle’s owner Jerry Lundegard (William H. Macy) walks into a dive bar, Merle Haggard’s “Big City” is playing on a jukebox. It fades as he meets with shady types played by Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare to plan yet another Coen Bros. Kidnapping caper.

Except for some automobile dealership muzak, thrash metal on Buscemi and Stormare’s car radio, and the theme from The Tonight Show blaring from a hotel room TV, there are long stretches with no music at all, so when Burwell’s crew comes in they really sting.

Stinging as in fierce piercings of strings in the scene in which the kidnappers break into the Lundegard’s house and abduct Jean (Kristin Rudrüd). The main theme, used sparingly, haunts the bleak moments of the protagonists as time and tension collide. Fittingly enough, the music mostly leaves Frances McDormand’s Oscar-winning Marge Gunderson character alone almost as if out of respect.

Standing apart from the score and other background sounds is the odd cameo by José Feliciano singing his 1983 minor hit “Let’s Find Each Other Tonight” which Buscemi (apparently on a date-night break from the caper) had enough class to take his hired whore…sorry, escort…to see at the Celebrity Room at the Carlton Hotel. On the quality of the room Buscemi says to his date: “Depends on the artist – José Feliciano, you got no complaints.” No complaints at all on that touch, the intensely impactful soundtrack, and the rest of one of the finest Coen Brothers’ films.

Coming soon: Part II: From a Movie Mix-tape Made By The Dude to a Muted De-Countrified Terrain With Some Soggy Mountain Boys Songs on the Side (1998-2007)

More later...

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