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From Bob Dylan to Jefferson Airplane: The 10 best musical moments from Coen brothers films

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“Man, come on. I had a rough night and I hate the f—kin’ Eagles, man.” – Jeff ‘El Duderito’ Lebowski.

As Los Angeles rises out of the desert and pans into view during the opening sequence of the Coen brothers’ masterpiece, The Big Lebowski, like some windblown edifice of man’s folly, we hear a conversational ode of sorts to ‘The Dude’. Within that opening stanza, Sam Elliot drawls out the following: “Sometimes there’s a man, well, he’s the man for his time and place, he fits right in there.”

A journey through The Coen Brothers filmmaking in 10 of their best scenes

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That very same principle applies to a movie’s song choices and musical moments. If the track or score doesn’t fit then it’ll be found out as fast as a severed imposter toe. It has to match the moment like an oat soda at sundown and with the help of the heroic Carter Burwell, although I wouldn’t say heroic, because what’s a hero, but, well you get the picture…

Below, we’re looking at the ten times when the notes were pitch perfect for the wild unfurling tales in the Coen’s Kafkaesque oeuvre. From Kenny Rogers & The First Editions to The Soggy Bottom Boys, these are the ten finest musical moments in the collection so far, but that’s just like my opinion man. 

The 10 best music moments from Coen brothers films:

10. ‘Sonata No 8’ – The Man Who Wasn’t There

Of all the Coen brothers films, The Man Who Wasn’t There is perhaps their most underrated. Effortlessly watchable, sleek and stylish, combining the sagacious philosophies of Albert Camus with the simple pace of daytime courtroom dramas ala Perry Mason, and an inherent whimsical cherry on top, there is so much in the welter and yet it comes out in a unified piece. 

The reason so many factors come together so coherently is tied down to the striking aesthetic of the film that stretches all the way to its beautiful score. Even when Ed Crane’s life is beset by catastrophic moments of diegesis, it still seems to equanimously unspool linearly like a gentle preordained symphony and nowhere is that sonically embodied with more perfection than when we first hear Birdy tapping out a beauteous classic. It is only with a hint of irony in mind that it finds itself tenth. 

9. ‘The Mermaid Ballet’ – Hail Caesar!

Despite describing their stories as page nine tales, the Coen brothers are not averse to the camp grandeur of Hollywood’s past. They have visited the magic, almost mechanically engineered choreography of Busby Berkeley on several occasions. In fact, it was a toss-up between the Mermaid sequence and ‘No Dames’ which both feature in Hail Caesar!

In this particular cinematic pastiche, it is not only the music that soars, but Scarlett Johansson also perfectly undercuts the graceful pomposity with brash New York attitude and a wind problem that soon puts an end to the brass band, so to speak. 

8. ‘Sweet Dreams (Of You)’ – Blood Simple

Admittedly, this scene is more about the ingenious panning shot than the song itself, but it nevertheless displays how brilliantly the Coen’s and Curter Burwell are at pairing the two. 

Following a cascade of strings, the camera slowly pans along the bar only to hop over an unimportant passed out drunk who nobody seems to care about. All the while, Patsy Cline croons “Sweet Dreams” even though our drunken friend is most certainly not dreaming at all and for everyone else things are far from sweet.  

7. ‘The Nappy Chase’ – Raising Arizona

Described by the likes of Edgar Wright as a live-action Looney Tunes movie, Raising Arizona flies along at Roadrunner pace and never once approaches a cliff. Nowhere does Wright’s analogy hold more truth than during the iconic nappy chase scene where the only thing missing is a revolving door sequence. 

Thus, to accompany this mayhem the only music suitable was bluegrass yodelling, of course, the wildest of all the music genres. Simultaneously laughable and hair-raising, the sequence is the moment that the movie kindly shows its hand and espouses the Kurt Vonnegut mantra: “Everything about life is a joke. Don’t you know that?” 

6. ‘Closing Credits’ – Miller’s Crossing

In what is perhaps Carter Burwell’s finest score, the music in Miller’s Crossing is perfect throughout. Like the film itself, the composition is somehow understated yet dramatic much like the old school gangster dramas that it joyously draws inspiration from.

The film is oddly inscrutable operating on a code of its own ethics and obfuscated by the postmodernist point of narrative. The score matches this perfectly, particularly in its final moments when it is hard to decipher the minor from the major and the message of the tune. 

5. ‘The Man in Me’ – The Big Lebowski

If you could take one single still image as a vignette of their work, then The Dude soaring above the Los Angeles skyline may well be it. This image is not only a defining part of the Coen brothers’ iconography, but it also sits proudly within the Hollywood tapestry, under the section titled cult classic. 

What’s more, as you scroll through cinemas most iconic images, there are very few that could cause the mind to stir with music quite like ‘The Man in Me’. In a movie that is perfectly realised down to the tiniest details, the songs follow suit and slip into scenes like a sonic glass slipper. Moreover, if you’re looking for a great musical moment, then you may as well source a simply brilliant song. 

4. ‘Queen Jane’ – Inside Llewyn Davis

“If it was never new, and it was never old, then it’s a folk song,” Llewyn Davis coughs out at one point in a fit of post-performance indifference. You could probably add to that – “and if nobody knew who sung it,” which is the case for the song in question – ‘Hang Me, Oh, Hang Me’. It features in Dave Van Ronk’s repertoire, but it dates back well before that. It was seemingly first recorded in 1927, but you can trudge through the murk further until you arrive at various dead-ends in the 1870s, primarily with execution ballads for nameless murderers. Llewyn Davis seems fated to join the long-chartered tradition of folk: to leave his nameless mark and be forgotten. 

His impromptu ‘Queen Jane’ Chicago audition is held at a venue named The Gate of Horn. In Greek tradition, The Gate of Horn and Ivory was where would-be heroes were sent to be tested. Unlike Bob Dylan, Davis didn’t pass with flying colours, nor incur a pyrrhic victory like his pal Frank, rather he joined the everyday masses who failed but reassuringly did so on their own terms. Bringing to mind another folk lyric, which must be one of the greatest of all time, Leonard Cohen’s –  “Well never mind, we are ugly but we have the music.”

The Coen’s could have made this performance a misfire, but that would be far too easy. Instead, the amazingly talented Oscar Isaac plays brilliantly and is met with a line about money, further deepening his Kafkaesque spiral.

3. ‘A Man of Constant Sorrow’ – O’ Brother Where art Thou?

The author Patrick deWitt once wrote, “I for one find it an annoyance when a story doesn’t do what it’s meant to do.” In an ideal world, the line would be unnoticeably jejune but seeing as though so few stories do actually do what they’re meant to do, it actually prickles with poignancy and perceptiveness. 

The Coen Brother’s realise that giving the audience what they want is not some cardinal sin, but a worthy endeavour. The Soggy Bottom Boys having their rightful moment in the spotlight is a celebratory set-piece moment, that pauses on an important passage of diegesis and happily picnics there, so the audience can contentedly savour getting what they want. 

Amid the unfurling chaos of their movies, it is important to lay down a few markers to hit and this scene is one of the ripples with sweet Soggy Bottom satisfaction and perfectly centres the (mis)adventure. 

2. ‘Somebody to Love’ – A Serious Man

A good song often makes for a good scene, it is as simple as that, and the Coen brothers are nothing if not identifiers of class. The directing duo have rightfully put their finger on the fact that ‘Somebody to Love’ is one of the greatest songs of all time, but not only that, they have rightfully extrapolated that beneath the rock bravura, it contains a whiff of the meaning of life. 

If there is one weakness to A Serious Man, it is perhaps that it seems like more of a selection of their finest scenes and less like a coherent whole, which is perhaps why it is better with repeated viewings when the need for narrative dwindles. However, even the first time out, this brilliant use of a truly great song as a set-piece and a recurring subtext is an inspired move. 

1. ‘Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)’ – The Big Lebowski

It was a brutal decision to leave out the fist-pumping bonanza of Creedence Clearwater Revival from The Big Lebowski, but three entries would be pushing it. Alas, Kenny Rogers & The First Edition surely deliver the finest musical moment of their filmography all the same. 

The Dude is just a dude, like the rest of us sinners taking her easy, and unlike most movies, he behaves like a normal person. In times of stress, we can all just pop on a record and drift into the sanctity of music’s comforting, beautiful, cushioning ‘I can’t be worrying about that shit, man’ boon and when the dude drifts into a psychedelic dreamscape it not only offers up evocative imagery and a scintillating song, but it also reaffirms his devil-may-care brilliance.

The whole sequence displays creativity on a scale that makes the whole ‘stoner comedy’ tag seem laughable. Kudos to the set design team too. A truly joyous movie moment.