Part two of Daniel Cook Johnson’s auditory head trip down Coens Lane commences forthwith. As previously mentioned, be sure to check out the gurgling fountain from which such musings bubble, Daniel’s film babble blog. In case you have need of catching up, be sure to peruse the first part of his verbose article, From the Dark Debut To The Snowblind Breakthrough (1984-1996).
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)
In late 1997, not long it felt after the buzz of the awards and accolades for Fargo died down, a trailer appeared that announced the Coen brother’s next film was going to be a loud colorful comedy about an aging hippie bowler caught in, yep, another kidnapping caper! I know I was not alone when watching the preview in thinking “bring it on!”
The Big Lebowski blew me away when I first saw it on the big screen with the music being no small part of the experience. Especially since the movie is wall to wall music – from the first frame to the end credits over 30 songs are heard in either fragments or filling entire scenes. The issued soundtrack is the first Coens’ recording to consist of songs – not composed tracks – with only one Carter Burwell original – “Technopop (Wie Glauben)”. That’s because there is almost no Burwell in the film – a bit of suspenseful strains to heighten the tension in the ransom drop-off sequence is the only bit I can find. With A-list producer T. Bone Burnett brought in as “musical archivist” it’s apparent that the songs are where it’s at in the world of The Dude. In an interview in Entertainment Weekly at the time of the film’s release Ethan Coen said: “We were trying to find signature songs for each of the characters so the only thing [the songs] share is that nothing is particularly contemporary sounding. They’re all from previous eras, consistent with the characters, who had attitudes shaped by the ’60s, ’70s, or earlier.”
The movie begins with Bob Nolan’s immortal “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” underneath the rambling narration of Sam Elliot as The Stranger – simple enough, huh? The soft scratchy strings of “Tumbleweeds” accompany The Stranger nearly every time he appears and they lure us into the tall tale introducing us to The Dude (Jeff Bridges). After a classic cold opening involving the Dude’s rug getting defiled, Bob Dylan’s uncharacteristically catchy “The Man In Me” hits the screen set to a bowling montage credits sequence. “Oh, what a wonderful feeling” Dylan sings as we see bowling shoes getting sprayed, pins getting knocked down, and bowlers in a choreographed line hitting their marks in sweet succession. This obscure 1970 song from Dylan’s New Morning LP defines The Dude in all his off the cuff ramshackle charm – maybe the only Dylan song ever to have repeated “la la la la la la” lines. We hear the song again later in the film as it’s on a tape in The Dude’s Walkman labeled: “A: Venice Beach League Playoffs 1987 B: BOB”. If you have the itch to actually hear the Dude sing “The Man In Me” – there are various clips on YouTube of Jeff Bridges covering the song at a few Lebowski Fests funnily enough.
The Dude also listens to CCR, usually when driving with bits of “Run Through The Jungle” and “Lookin’ Out My Back Door” rearing their swamp rock heads. He has the lone new song on the soundtrack by Elvis Costello (“My Mind Swings”) blaring in his headphones when he goes to the doctor – one of the odd musical pieces that doesn’t quite fit. He worked as a roadie for Metallica (“bunch of assholes”) and hates the Eagles who he can’t abide playing on a cab stereo (“Peaceful Easy Feeling”). The Eagles are also interpreted by the Gypsy Kings in a standout scene that has a Spanish version of “Hotel California” assimilating itself as the theme song of minor character but pivotal rival bowler Jesus Quintella (John Turturro). Musical motifs continue throughout – the millionaire Jeff Lebowski (David Huddleson) has Mozart’s “Requiem” on his hi-fi in an intense dark chamber scene. Daughter Maude Lebowski (Julianne Moore) has an eclectic collection of vinyl including the fictional Autobahn (which features Red Hot Chili Peppers’ basist Flea) – “their music is a sort of–ugh–techno-pop” she says. Another tuneful thematic treatment: pornographer Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzara) has Henry Mancini’s “Lucon” to suavely set his tone. Like a tuneful tumbleweed itself, Townes Van Zandt’s cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Dead Flowers” speaks volumes of all these folk as the film wraps up.
In their use of the many songs in The Big Lebowski the Coens were coming too close to making a full throttle musical. Especially when you consider the central sequence, another dream-scene in which The Dude imagines a huge Bubsy Berkely-type musical number. Kenny Rogers and The First Edition’s “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” serenades the Dude joining dancing girls in Roman garb with Maude Lebowski as their leader and a Saddam Hussein look-a-like. This rousing set piece incorporated from another era forecasted the Brother’s next phase. On the horizon approaching fast was coming a plucky period piece in which the music mightily overshadowed the movie.
The soundtrack for O Brother, Where Art Thou? is the most successful soundtrack of all of their films – a #1 hit (certified 8 times platinum) on the Country and Soundtrack charts that inspired a concert tour (documented in Down From The Mountain) and earned a Grammy for Album of the Year (2000). This time T. Bone Burnett was “Music Producer” with Burwell credited with “additional music” so again the songs take the center stage. Over 50 performers are listed as personnel on the soundtrack including Alison Kraus, The Stanley Brothers, Emmylou Harris, Tim O’Brien, Gillian Welch, the Fairfield Four, the Cox Family, and everybody else in the Americana roots genre available it looks like. The film is a great screwball romp about escaped convicts (George Clooney, Tim Blake Nelson, John Turturro) making their way across Depression-period Mississippi. They befriend blues guitarist Tommy Johnson (Chris Thomas King) who claims to have sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads. Many folks have thought that this was based on Robert Johnson but there was a real Tommy Johnson who made the same claim. His tunage, though, is supplied by Delta blues legend Skip James – King performs James’ “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” in one scene. Johnson lends a hand when the wanted men form a makeshift band – The Soggy Bottom Boys. With Clooney lip-syching to Dan Tyminski’s vocal, they record a invigorated version of the standard “Man Of Constant Sorrow” that becomes a regional hit proving that life does a pretty fair impression of art every once in a while.
In a 2000 interview, when asked if he was a fan of country music by the British magazine Uncut, the normally elusive and ironic Joel Coen said he was but that “[the soundtrack is] not exactly country music. It’s American roots music – folk music, in a way – and there’s lots of different strands. In the movie there’s Delta blues, early mountain music, and gospel music. They’re all different but they all come from that time and that general area.” The gospel must be stressed as much of the music in O Brother is spiritual. Prominent are such songs such as “Oh Death”, “Angel Band “, “Lonesome Valley”, and the beautiful rendition of the traditional “Down to the River to Pray” by Allison Kraus, who appears in the film. While Clooney has help from overdubs, Tim Blake Nelson takes lead vocal on “In The Jailhouse Now” – a reprieve from the heavy hymns dominating the proceedings.
Now that the Coens had taken on the stylings of an old school era and with the help of T. Bone Burnett put their stamp on an entire musical genre in the process it again looked like the right time to scale back. Minimalism, both movie and music-wise, was the order of the day on their next project.
Joel Coen told a reporter that the The Man Who Wasn’t There was “about a barber who doesn’t want to be a barber”. Shown in luxurious black and white (there are color versions of the film available in Europe and Japan), the film is another period piece taking place in 1949 Southern California. With Billy Bob Thornton as the barber we’re back to Burwell basics with no T. Bone track-picking involvement – which means spooky repeated piano figures and swelling string sections punctuating key plot points. Mind you these points are few – most of the movie plays with no music and often when music does appear, it lurks beneath the surface, a separate non-intertwining track. Apart from his tasteful cues Burwell conducts his muted orchestra through a few truncated Beethoven numbers – “Pathétique,” “Piano Sonata No. 25” and “Appassionata” respectively. Among Thornton’s hardships in this eccentric existential exercise is his longing to help Scarlett Johansen as a piano prodigy get recognized for her talent. When told by a pretentious teacher (Adam Alexi-Malle) that she would make a good typist – “tap tap tap” – one can see Thornton’s tortured long face get longer and sense his heart sinking. The aforementioned classical pieces with smatterings of opera and big band bits are just blips on the radar of this soundtrack. Fittingly, The Man Who Wasn’t There has a score that is barely there itself.
For the most conventional comedy they’ve made to date, Intolerable Cruelty has a soundtrack that, despite Burwell’s inspired contributions, is pretty indistinguishable from most rom-com platters. Tom Jones, Chuck Mangione, Edith Piaf, Simon & Garfunkel, (even a Melissa Manchester track!) – this could be a bland background mix for a cozy cocktail party. Actually I’m sure that’s pretty much what they intended. While I think the movie is better than its critical and commercial reception implies, I think the only really truly notable musical element is the credits sequence use of Elvis Presley’s “Suspicious Minds”. Summing up the theme of the entire escapade and providing the tone with some much needed punch – especially after the less than classic cold opening (maybe the worse first scene in the Coens’ canon), the King’s mature yet winking vocal on top of crudely animated cupid imagery works wonders for a few minutes at least. Intolerable Cruelty has few fans but I’ll go on record to say it’s not without its musical merits.
Back with T. Bone Burnett, The Ladykillers’ soundtrack was a failed attempt to catch the O Brother lightning in a bottle a second time. Nevermind that the film is unneccessary on many fronts – as a remake, as a farcical retread, as an ensemble piece – it also just goes through the motions and never quite hits any stride. The spiritual old timey leanings here just call attention to the ground already trodden. The soundtrack alone though is a nice listen, split between “Trouble” songs (“Trouble of this World”, “Trouble In, Trouble Out”, and “Troubled, Lord I’m Troubled” by the Nappy Roots and Bill Landford respectively) and the “Let Your Light Shine On Me” songs, there is an infectious unity, but these flourishes come off cynical and smarmy in the context of the flimsy on-screen shenanigans. Still, the Coens’ brand of cinematic silliness does redeem itself in some surprisingly sincere segments in The Ladykillers, as few and far between as they are.
There are only 16 minutes of music in the Coen brothers Oscar winning Cormac McCarthy adaptation of No Country For Old Men. Burwell sans piano uses singing bowls and Buddhist metal bells to make his most minimalist score ever. The result is the first Coen movie to have no issued soundtrack. There are 2 Hispanic songs heard in the movie – “Puño de Tierra” and “Las Mañanitas” – but like the almost non-existent backing in The Man Who Wasn’t There,movie-goers should be instantly forgiven for not remembering them.
In methods mostly circular – like the old timer said in Raising Arizona – the Coens and collaborator Carter Burwell have tracked and back-tracked over styles and genres, fearlessly leaving marks on the movie and musical map for pop culture appraisers and explorers to chart for ages to come. They again will have the chance to hit the mark coming this fall with their next film, Burn After Reading. ‘Til then we’ll have their scenes and songs to soothe our cinematic souls. Any one of the tracks I talked about may be the “Same Old Song” like the Four Tops sang in Blood Simple, but they sure have a different meaning since the Coen brothers came along.