Music of the Movies: The Coen Brothers

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When it comes to making movies, there are few who can match the careers of writer-director duo Joel and Ethan Coen. Their ability to create new, exciting and enchanting films from across the spectrum of genre and theme is undeniably unique. From the screwball innocence of The Hudsucker Proxy to the dark, violent comedy of Fargo, this pair of impresarios have an incredible range of pictures under their collective belt. Similarly, when it comes to the music of their films, their vast pool of styles, influences and uses of music enhances their features to create some of the most beautiful, harrowing and hilarious moments of cinema.

Their most musical piece, O Brother Where Are Thou? boasts their impressive and wide ranging understanding and utilization of music; in particular, their use of tribal, spiritual unaccompanied traditional music occurs stunningly throughout. First, we see a mass baptism at a lake, with the congregation moving to the river singing the beautifully traditional Appalachian hymn ‘Down in the River to Pray’ (with measured soft and mindful lead vocals from folk songstress Alison Krauss on the soundtrack). The choice echoes both the highly religious society of the time and the power of congregational vocality, taking us away from the dusty road and transcending into a higher sound. This is seen again later in the film with our unlikely heroes drawn to the three beautiful sirens, with their swooning serenade of ‘Didn’t Leave Nobody but the Baby’ in a bewitching three-part-harmony.

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The final and more disturbing keyhole-view into the dark traditions of Southern America sees a meeting of the Klu Klux Klan, which is ceremonially lead by a hooded figure singing the dark spiritual blues dirge O Death, in a hauntingly bone-bare version by Ralph Stanley. Accompanied by the rhythmic stamping of the assembled Klansmen, this is one of the Coen’s most memorable cinematic moments. By using the spiritual, unaccompanied songs the viewer is swept away with the tale, the ethereal chorus enhancing the feelings and emotion offered at these fantastic moments in the movie.

The Coen brothers infatuation for the time in which their narrative occurs is shown again in their most recent offering, Inside Llewyn Davis, which again draws on the American folk tradition, looking forward to the pre-break wave of the 1960s folk revival in New York’s Greenwich Village. With T-Bone Burnett collaborating on the music production (as he did on Oh Brother Where Art Thou), the viewer is drawn into the underground, smoky world of the not-yet-profitable folk scene, with Oscar Isaac’s bleak and beautiful rendition of ‘Hang Me, Oh Hang Me’ opening the film and setting a musical bar which is constantly met. With further forays from co-stars Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan on the gorgeous ‘Five Hundred Miles’, made famous in 1960s America by folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary, the music in this film is one of it’s core strengths and gives the story landmarks to move between. The novelty track ‘Please Mr. Kennedy’ makes a great point about the marketability of folk music before the revival took off, and pinpoints the protagonist’s plight as his passion and talent go unrewarded time and time again.

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Not only are the Coen brothers adept at their use of music from certain era, they have a true talent for using music to underline tones and mood within their features, especially for the comedy of their characters’ misadventures. The Big Lebowski is one of their most celebrated films, and uses music to give context to the central character’s easy going nature; for example, the references to the laid back sound of Creedence Clearwater Revival that crop up throughout the feature such as ‘Run Through the Jungle’ and ‘Lookin’ Out My Back Door’ hit home this relaxed motif. More than this two of the film’s funniest moments hinge on ingenious track choices. The introduction of Jesus, the hispanic bowling opponent to The Dude and Walter’s bowling team, is underscored with the rousing and very, very latino cover of The Eagles’ ‘Hotel California’, performed by the Gypsy Kings, which gives John Turturro’s brilliant cameo even more of a comedic lift, with his over-the-top latin hips and suave hispanic entrance framed perfectly by the exaggerated mariachi track.

In a more subtle comedic turn, just after Walter has beaten the hell out of a sports can and The Dude’s car has been similarly destroyed in turn, the film cuts to the trio of city adventurers driving in a smashed up car listening to the laid-back Latino vibes of Carlos Santana’s ‘Oye Como Va’ whilst eating burgers. This juxtaposition of a scene of rage and carnage contrasting with the mundane and indifferent driving-and-snacking serves as a brilliant comic moment.

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This use of music as a comedic device is seen in a surprising moment in the Academy Award winning Best Picture No Country for Old Men. Aside from the closing credits, there is a noticeable absence of any musical scoring throughout the film. This natural atmosphere enhances the incredibly menacing themes of the film and serves to keep the tensions tighter than a piano-wire. However, we see one moment where the protagonist, having been wounded and crawled across the boarder into Mexico, is awoken blood-stained in the street by the upbeat serenade of a Mexican Mariachi band who disband quickly when they see that he’s been shot.  This hallmark Coen brothers moment of oddball-comedy provides a slight relief to an incredibly tense and compelling scene.

With such a vast canon of films, and such an incredibly diverse use of music from across all styles, genres and time periods, it is difficult to pinpoint all of the ways the Coen brothers use music in their films. What is striking is the pair’s ability to not only use music that serves a purpose, but also to know when to not use any sound at all. The Coen Brothers understand music unlike any other filmmaker around; they are simply on another level. Their clear understanding of time, genre and comedy allows their music to achieve an untold presence and power within their features. There are few who can achieve this. Luckily for us, the Coen brothers seem to succeed every time.

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