Today we’ll be taking a look at the films of the Coen brothers, exploring how they’ve used music throughout their filmography to heighten the tension, comedic value, and devastating emotional impact of their movies.
Now I’m not saying that, without these pieces of music, they’re in any way bad films. I’m just saying that these songs make them all the better. It may seem like a small thing to some people, but music is just about the most essential aspect of any film. Damn it, I’d be willing to say it’s more important than the actors’ performances. Music can make or break a film. Consider Amelie, for example. Without Yann Tiersen’s score for that film, I doubt it would have been anything like as captivating. To prove my point, let’s do a little thought experiment. Take your favourite movie and imagine it without a score or soundtrack. Are you there? Yeah? Is it any good still? No of course it isn’t. It’s not necessarily bad, but it’s dry, a bit bare. It’s just, you know – fine.
The Coen brothers have always understood the vital function music plays and have exploited its potential countless times. Starting their career in the 1980s, Joel and Ethen Coen quickly established themselves as perhaps the most successful partnership in the contemporary film world.
With films like Fargo, The Big Lebowski and No Country For Old Men, they have marked themselves out as purveyors of artfully crafted films imbued with an outsider sensibility. This list looks at ten occasions when the duo used music to push their films to new heights.
The Coen brothers’ best music moments:
Oh Brother Where Art Thou – ‘Man of Constant Sorrow’
Nobody else but the Coen brothers could make a success of such a preposterous premise as their film Oh Brother Where Art Thou. In it, the Coen brothers transplanted Homer’s Odyssey and set it in depression-era America. As a result, it was essential for the music to capture the spirit of the age, and with ‘A Man Of Constant Sorrow’ the duo did just that.
The song is an American folk tune published initially by Dick Burnett, a blind fiddler from Kentucky. But in this version, the Coen brothers harnassed the close harmonies of Earl Scrugg’s band, The Soggy Bottom Boys to create one of the films most memorable musical moments.
The Big Lebowski – ‘Hotel California’
This flamenco version of The Eagles’ ‘Hotel California’ is just about the best uses of music to convey character. The absurd scene in which Jesus prepares to cast his bowling ball down the alley is majestic, icky and absolutely hilarious.
Captured in slow motion, the scene gives us access to the inner workings of Jesus’ mind, imbuing every shot with a sultry sensuality utterly at odds with the smell of fries and child’s feet that surely pervades the bowling alley.
Inside Llewyn Davis – Fare Thee Well
This song from the Coen brothers story of a grumpy folk musician haunted by his own failures ties the two ends of the film together with absolute precision.
The track is, arguably, one of the songs most essential characters, a ghost that seems to be just two steps behind at all times. In this final scene, we can hear the desperation of a man who’s given everything he’s got, only to end up exactly where he began.
Miller’s Crossing – ‘Danny Boy’
A big-hitter from long time collaborator Carter Burwell next.
Miller’s Crossing contains many of the themes which would inform Oh Brother Where Art Thou and features a similarly era-appropriate score. This swelling rendition of ‘Danny Boy’ creates a vivid dissonance as it plays over a bloody shoot out.
The resulting contrast between action and tone offers one of the most captivating scenes in the Coen brother’s entire catalogue.
True Grit – ‘Leaning On The Everlasting Arms’
One of the Coen brother’s most beautifully shot films, True Grit contains this heart-wrenching rendition of the traditional hymn ‘Everlasting arms’.
Featuring the mellow tones of Iris Dement, this track provides a tear-jerking accompaniment to the moment Mattie Rosse walks away from the grave of Rooster Cogburn.
The entirety of Burwell’s score for this film is made up of variations on the central theme in this piece and never fails to make my diaphragm quiver. In combination with the stunning cinematography, this piece pushes True Grit towards the holy.
A Serious Man – ‘Somebody To Love’
Like Inside Lleyn Davis, the Coen Brothers’ 2009 film A Serious Man features a cyclical structure. And like ‘Far Thee Well’, it contains a recurring song that crops up at several crucial moments.
Jefferson Airplane’s ‘Somebody To Love’ both begins and ends this film. The first time it is head, it seems almost absurd. But by the finale, it has taken on an ominous presence, indicating that the future may not be so bright.
Oh Brother Where Art Thou – I’ll Fly Away’
The beautiful thing about Oh Brother Where Art Thou is that it contains so many songs which are allowed to play out in their entirety. The world of the film is inseparable from the music inside it, and so with this song, the Coen brother’s allow the audience to travel alongside its charismatic characters.
Allison Krauss and Gillian Welch’s combined voices provide the perfect accompaniment to an escape montage, conveying a sort of deluded optimism all the while.
Fargo – ‘Let’s Find Each Other Tonight’
At this point, it’s probably become apparent that almost all of the pieces of music used by the Coen brothers are, in one way or another, adaptations of classic American songs. This is unsurprising given that so many of their best films are, at their core, studies of characters wading through the unique hodge-podge of American culture.
Fargo is no different. In this scene, Jose Feliciano’s rendition of ‘Let’s Find Each Other Tonight’ captures the monotony of small-town romances, as well as the awkwardness of the transaction between Buscemi’s Carl Showalter and the hooker he has taken out for dinner.
The Big Lebowski – ‘Just Dropped In’
The dream sequence in The Big Lebowski is arguably one of the best of all time. It defies explanation, but with Kenny Rogers providing the musical accompaniment, you barely need one.
Just sit back, relax and watch Jeff Bridges grooving on a chequered staircase leading to heaven. In this scene especially, the Coen brother’s knack for using music as a punchline is on clear display.
No Country For Old Men – ‘Blood Trails’
All good directors understand that the absence of music can a useful creative tool. In their film No Country for Old Men, the Coen brothers took this idea to its logical extreme.
The 2007 movie starring Javier Bardem is soundtracked only by its characters’ voices, the landscape’s ambience, and Carter Burwell’s minimal sound design. In fact, this song, the only traditionally musical piece in the whole film, plays over the closing credits. After being faced with its absence, when Burwell’s music finally hits you, it does so like a tonne of bricks.