Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Musings On The Music In The Coen Brothers’ Movies: Part III

Ethan Coen, T. Bone Burnett, and Joel Coen share a laugh in the recording studio during the sessions for INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS.

The Coen brothers’ newest film, INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS is one of their most musically minded movies so I’ve been taking a chronological look back at the songs and scores of the soundtracks throughout their fine filmography.

Part I covered BLOOD SIMPLE through FARGO: PART I: From the Dark Debut to the Snowblind Breakthrough (1984-1996).

Part II covered THE BIG LEBOWSKI through NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN: 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).

This update will carry us through BURN AFTER READING to their latest film which is now playing at an indie art house near you

Part III: From a Star Studded Spy-style Lark to a Dark Folksinging Farce (2008-2013)

The Coen brother’s follow-up to their Oscar-winning new fangled Western NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN was a lowbrow lark with a highbrow cast and production values: 2008’s BURN AFTER READING. George Clooney (returning for his third film with the brothers), Frances McDormond (her sixth), Brad Pitt, John Malkovich, Richard Jenkins, and Tilda Swinton find themselves caught up in a kooky Washington D.C.-set caper involving some not so intelligent members of the intelligence community.

Composer Carter Burwell, returning for his 12th film with the Coens, was called upon by Joel Coen to provide a score that’s “something big and bombastic, something important sounding but absolutely meaningless.” In a 2008 interview with Filmfocus.com, Burwell commented:

“I liked the idea that the composer is as deluded as the characters so that his soundtrack fits the movie the characters think they are in, rather than the actual film we are watching.”

The effect works wonders with the film’s dark thriller aesthetics right from the opening percussion-enhanced get-go in the Google Earth-esque credits opening (aptly named “Earth Zoom (In)” on the film’s issued soundtrack. (There's a
“Earth Zoom (Out)” at the end too).
After the minimal music accompaniment in NO COUNTRY, BURN AFTER READING gave us a full wall-to-wall Burwell score that was singled out by many critics including Wendy Ide from The Times who wrote: “Carter Burwell’s brilliant score is the most paranoid piece of film music since Quincy Jones’s neurotic soundtrack for THE ANDERSON TAPES - it’s particularly well-judged as it brings a gravity to a collection of characters who we could otherwise dismiss as numbskulls and nincompoops.”

Burwell (again in Filmfocus.com) though had a different film in mind for inspiration: “What I was referencing was [the score for] SEVEN DAYS IN MAY, which is almost entirely percussion and has lots of snare drums and marching sounds. But the [percussion in the BURN AFTER READING] score wasn’t about the military but instead a sense of grandiosity.”

Despite good reviews and respectable box office, BURN AFTER READING has sort of faded away in the years since its release. Re-watching it for this piece I found that it holds up nicely. Sure, it can seem like a throwaway – i.e. the Coens taking a silly breather between bigger statements - but with the amusing actions of its A-list cast and Burwell’s satirically over serious score I think it’s definitely a keeper.

Burwell and the brothers, Coen, re-united the following year for A SERIOUS MAN, an even darker comedy that focused on the trials and tribulations of a Minnesotan physics professor (Michael Stuhlbarg) in the late ‘60s.

Autobiographical elements from the Coen brothers’ Jewish upbringing were obviously in the mix. The inclusion of three Jefferson Airplane songs on the soundtrack leads me to believe one of the brothers got stoned at their bar mitzvah just like Gobnik’s son (Aaron Wolff) does in one of the film’s best scenes.

Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody To Love” appears, as I wrote in my original review of the film, as “a driving force throughout the movie.” Firstly, when the credits slowly start to hit the screen after the odd Yiddish-language opening scene, Burwell’s Stomp-style percussion segues into the 1967 Jefferson Airplane classic. Then we see Wolff listening to the song on his portable transistor radio earplug while sitting in his classroom. The song gets broadcast to the rest of the class when the kid’s instructor angrily yanks the earplug out while confiscating the radio.

Burwell discussed this with movingimagesource.us: “The idea was that during this transition from the shtetl to the Jefferson Airplane, you're traveling through the ear canal of this boy in Hebrew school. It’s a dark and mysterious tunnel, and when you finally get to the end it turns out that it’s the earpiece of his portable radio through which he's listening to Jefferson Airplane. That was the first piece of music I wrote for the film.”

Burwell also said of the film: “The script had specific musical references: Jefferson Airplane, F Troop, Sidor Belarsky. Belarsky was a Jewish opera singer who also made some Yiddish records, and there's one Yiddish song that [the Coens] just loved. These songs were in the script, and that was basically what I had to go on at first. Joel and Ethan had no suggestion about what the score should be. They just said, ‘Well, this is what you've got. You've got Jefferson Airplane and F Troop and Sidor Belarsky.’”’

A SERIOUS MAN’S soundtrack features 20 tracks - the aforementioned Jefferson Airplane song “Somebody To Love” along with the San Francisco band’s “Comin’ Back To Me” and “Today” join 17 tracks of Burwell’s scorings, mostly made up of spare harp, strings, and piano stylings.

While his son listens to Jefferson Airplane, Stuhlbarg’s put-upon professor puts Sidor Belarsky on the family parlophone in his downtime. Much of the film concerns Stuhlbarg trying to get in to see the rabbi emeritus, the famous Marshak in order to obtain some wisdom, but it’s his son Wolff who gets a sit-down with the senior rabbi (Alan Mandell) after the blitzed boy’s bar mitzvah. After some well measured silence, the rabbi slowly intones: “When the truth is found to be lies, and all the hope within you dies…” Yep, the opening couplet from “Somebody To Love.”

The rabbi then says “Then what? Grace Slick, Marty Balin, Paul Kantner, Jorma-something. These are the members of the Airplane!” The rabbi gives back the boy’s transistor radio and concludes: “Be a good boy.” Seems like the Coens are saying that the lyrics of a rock song hold just about as much meaning as any religious dogma does. Or something.

For TRUE GRIT, the Coen brothers’ 2010 adaptation of the novel not a remake of the 1969 John Wayne movie, Burwell explained to Variety that for the tale of a 14-year-old girl bent on avenging her father’s murder in the Old West: “I thought that hymns, or music that sounded like hymns, would remind you that what’s driving the whole story is a biblical sense of righteousness.”

“19th Century church music” was another way Burwell put it in the same interview, and that’s what’s all over TRUE GRIT especially in the 1888 hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” which accounts for a fourth of the score. Iris Dement’s version of the song that accompanies the end credits isn’t available on the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack CD, but it’s available on the iTunes version of the release.

Other old timey hymns referenced in the orchestral score are “The Glory-Land Way” and “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”
Hold to God's Unchanging Hand, and Talk About Suffering.

Of course, because the hymns are considered pre-composed music, the movie didn’t get any Oscar nomination action for its score but it did get nominated for just about everything else (Jeff Bridges’ great grizzled turn as Rooster Coogburn nagged him his first Best Actor Academy Award).

The film also features a vocal turn by Bridges on the 19th century folk song “Greer County Bachelor,” but don’t go expecting Bad Blake from CRAZY HEART here.

In his very favorable review of the soundtrack, Tom Jurek of Allmusic.com remarked: “Of the 14 collaborations between the Coens and Burwell, this is among the most unique and satisfying for its enfolding of historic music into modern composition.”

Burwell wouldn’t return for the filmmaking sibling’s next film, but for the Coen brothers’ other favorite musical collaborator, T. Bone Burnett, it was a project he was born to produce. 

Historic music is what the lead character of the Coen brothers’ 2013 film, INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, says he pays his rent with: “If it’s never been new and it never gets old, it’s a folk song” he tells the audience at the Gaslight CafĂ© in 1961 Greenwich Village.

Trouble is, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) has no home because he can’t afford to pay rent. Davis is loosely modeled on ‘60s folksinger Dave Von Ronk in his repertoire (Isaac’s Davis sings songs that Ronk covered like “Green, Green Rocky Road” and “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me”) his almost identical album cover, and, as Ilijah Wald writes on the Inside Llewyn Davis website “shares his background as a working class kid who split his life between playing guitar and shipping out in the Merchant Marine.”

Davis was once part of a folk singing duo, Timlin & Davis. Timlin’s vocal is provided by Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons on the soundtrack, but the character is not seen as he committed suicide before the events in the film. Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan portray a folk duo, Jim & Jean, based on the real life Jim and Jean (Jim Glover and Jean Ray) who were also one of the inspirations for Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara’s Mitch & Mickey characters in Christopher Guest’s A MIGHTY WIND.

One of the film’s catchiest moments, to Davis’s chagrin, occurs when Jim and Jean join Stark Sands as clean cut military man/folk singer Tom Nelson onstage to sing the popular folk song “Five Hundred Miles,” written by Hedy West. There also seems to be some Peter, Paul and Mary action in this bit.

Stark Sands’ Nelson is loosely based on folk singer Tom Paxton (confirmed by Nelson singsing Paxton’s “The Last Thing on My Mind” at the Gaslight), Ramblin’ Jack Elliot is represented by Al Cody (played by Girls’ Adam Driver), and John Goodman’s Roland Turner is somewhat based on Doc Pomus, who wrote the hits “Save The Last Dance For Me” and “This Magic Moment” (and was profiled in the biodoc A.K.A. DOC POMUS). Then again, some are surmissing that Goodman's Turner is modeled on Dr. John.

One thing many critics have agreed on is that one of the musical highlights of the film is “Please Mr. Kennedy,” a purposely hokey protest song written by Timberlake’s character that Davis reluctantly plays guitar and sings back-up on because he needs the money. The song is based on a few similar songs from the early ‘60s such as “Please Mr. Kennedy Don't Send Me Off to Vietnam” so this is why, as amusing and well performed as it is by Isaac, Timberlake, and Driver, the song won’t be eligible for an Oscar nomination.

As for the movie capturing the moment before Bob Dylan broke big, Dylan's name is never uttered in INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS but Benjamin Davis, a dead-on Dylan lookalike, credited as “Young Bob” takes the stage at the Gaslight towards the end to sing (actually lip synch to) Dylan’s “Farewell.” 

The song, one of many unreleased Dylan gems from that era, is overheard while Davis gets beaten up in the alley – a signifier of a coming sea change for sure. Incidentally the soundtrack has a different version of the song than is used in the film - a studio outtake of “Farewell” appears on the record while Dylan's Whitmark Demo version appears in the film.

Also significant is that Dylan's “Farewell,” which he adapted from the British folk ballad “Leaving of Liverpool”is a similar song and sentiment to “Fare The Well (Dink's Song),” which appears twice on the soundtrack. These songs about leaving one life for another encapsulate the themes that seem to be hiding under the cold surface of the film.

INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS is a good example of how the music in the Coen brothers movies continues to be as memorable, or sometimes more memorable, as the imagery, acting, and thorny themes in their colossal canon. Here’s hoping that one day they’ll actually do an old school people-break-out-in-song Hollywood musical, and add that to the genres they’ve tackled.

Until then they’ve given us, as Stephen Root says in O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU, some “fine a-pickin’ and a-singin’” Fare thee well for now.

More later…

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