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Film

Why The Big Lebowski is the greatest soundtrack of the 1990s

@TomTaylorFO

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

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. Above the desert breeze, we hear the rising tones of ‘Tumbling Tumbleweeds’, a musical lament of acquiescing to the equanimity of aimlessness in the meandering dream of the Old West and cut above this is a conversational ode of sorts to ‘The Dude’—the most happily aimless of all men, about to be befallen by his own desert folly.

Within the opening stanza of narration, 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.” The same can be said for crafting any soundtrack—you have to identify the song that fits the scene like a sonic glass slipper. If the track or score doesn’t fit, then it’ll be found out as fast as a fake severed 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… ah hell, lost my train of thought here, but I’ve introduced Burwell and the Coen’s enough!

Likewise, in the soundtrack to The Big Lebowski, the creative minds behind it seem to think they have coasted over enough subtext with the old opening country classic and they quickly settle in line to introduce the centrepiece of their desert comedy. Welcome to the welter, The Dudes spiritual soundtrack of sorts, ‘The Man in Me’ by Bob Dylan.

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Now perhaps a bit of context on the song itself helps to illuminate why the song choice is simply spot-on for The Dudes soaring flight over Los Angeles. As we soon learn in the picture – once Lebowski has landed and left the bowling lanes – he used to be a trailblazer of sorts. He was part of the Seattle Seven, along with six other guys. In short, a cult ‘voice of a generation’ figure, if you will. Dylan himself is the eponymous cultural icon of the aforementioned title, however, much like The Dude, he quickly pulled away from it and settle into the more tranquil virtues of life. 

This step back began with the album New Morning. The record forgoes any political comment and instead doles out some laidback spiritualism. In fact, if ‘The Man in Me’ was any more laidback, he’d have to sing it lying down. This might only be a meta-reference inferred from a few hundred viewings by yours truly, but what is more apparent is how the anthem prognosticates what is to come. At one point our hero really does step into action in defence of his special lady friend, apropos the lyric: “It takes a woman like you / To get through to the man in me.”

While these links may well be made after the fact, and in truth, they may well prove wide of the mark, it is testimony to the minute details that the Coen brothers pour over in the epic farce that such notions can be evoked. For instance, ‘Lookin’ Out My Back Door’ by Creedence Clearwater Revival might just be chosen because it’s a classic tune that fits the bill, but it certainly seems appropriate that it also extolls the sort of introspective mindfulness that The Dude relishes in. 

Then comes the pinnacle of the soundtrack with the iconic Kenny Rogers & The First Edition psychedelic blitzkrieg of ‘Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)’. The whole sequence that the song plays over displays creativity on a scale that makes the whole ‘stoner comedy’ tag seem laughable. Kudos to the set design team too. The truly joyous movie moment would be enough in itself, but the fact that it also provides the contextual depth of dropping into the cushioning ‘I can’t be worrying about that shit, man’ boon of music and drifting off into a sonic dreamscape imbues it with an unrivalled depth. 

In most cases, the alchemical magic of pairing songs with the perfect moment is rousing enough. However, when it comes to The Big Lebowski, the fact that each song also seems fine-tuned with a contextual overture is a truly astounding feat. After all, even The Dude’s marmot maligning enemies are a parody of half band/half computer programme Kraftwerk—and considering that His Dudeness is still a guy who jerks of manually, even that is a filigreed detail that must’ve stuck in his craw. 

Like The Dude himself, the songs are the right ones for their time and place for all manner of reasons. They don’t just sit right in there, although they could easily be enjoyed in that passing sense anyway. You can dive into the soundtrack and never live to see the bottom, or you can simply float on the surface and listen to the pins fall, any which way, this soundtrack abides.