The Coen brothers’ relationship to source music is as integral to their vision as recurring themes and subject matter. Like a signature shot or the way certain characters speak, a director’s song selection can reverberate throughout an oeuvre. We anticipate with excitement what 45s are going to be “rediscovered” after being used in a movie. Martin Scorsese and David Chase are masters at using pop music to enhance ecstasy and dread. Danny Boyle uses Brit pop and world beat grooves to bring us into the jangled headspace of his anti-heroes. Quentin Tarantino brilliantly uses a mix-tape approach to music to complement his genre deconstructions. Matthew Weiner knows how to take an old standard and make it sound new again. Cameron Crowe celebrates the good vibrations of ‘70s gold. Allison Anders’ passion for American pop deserves more recognition. Same goes for Craig Brewer, who is practically alone in acknowledging that hip-hop and country no longer occupy separate playlists.
Then there are filmmakers whose understanding of music is constantly evolving. They don’t so much recontextualize their record collection as expand it. These filmmakers work in the vein of Stanley Kubrick, a master at selecting period-specific source music for his movies. Modern-day Kubrick musicologists include David Fincher, who uses both original scores and source cues in startlingly new ways. (Fight Club is his A Clockwork Orange, while the score to The Social Network feels like a companion piece to that of The Shining.) Wes Anderson is another director who constantly mixes things up on the soundtrack. The use of multiple Hank Williams songs in Moonrise Kingdom was an out-of-the-box gambit that proved surprisingly moving. (On the other hand, Paul Thomas Anderson so desperately wants to be a Kubrickphile that his soundtracks have felt increasingly strained since the gloriously melancholic Magnolia.) But the filmmakers who most resemble Kubrick when it comes to music are the Coen brothers. Ever since their audacious directorial debut Blood Simple (1985), Joel and Ethan Coen have used both source music and composed scores to set the tone of their fishbowl-lens visions of cruelty, trickery, detachment, and longing. Specializing in deadpan genre deconstructions, the Coens use music to provide the emotionality for their generally cool stories. Their movies have always given off the feeling of being hermetically-sealed environs where acts of cruelty and kindness are given equal weight. This would be quite off-putting if it weren’t for the music. What follows are the best uses of music in the Coens’ movies. I stand by my ranking, or my name isn’t Aaron Aradillas.
“Somebody to Love” by Jefferson Airplane
A Serious Man, the Coens’ most humane movie, is all about the disorienting feeling of trying to assimilate in a world where faith in a higher power is constantly being tested. While not strictly autobiographical, the film is informed by the Coens’ Jewish upbringing during the 1960s in suburban Minnesota. Part of the first generation of Jewish-Americans who felt removed from the Holocaust, they re-create the swirling atmosphere of suburban blandness and mind-expanding psychedelia rock. As Physics professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) starts to seek answers to life’s mysteries, the Coens gently mock and pay respect to the temporary comforts of religious rituals. Unlike a physics problem, which can be mapped out to its one and only conclusion, real life is messier and can sometimes seem quite arbitrary.
Larry’s journey to the realization that not every question has an answer is foretold by the use of Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love.” a track from their Surrealistic Pillow album, the song is a rocked-out version of a mellower folk number that singer Grace Slick brought from The Great Society. The song is highlighted at three key points during the movie. First, it follows a seemingly unrelated prologue scene set in the early 20th century that centers on suspicion and misunderstandings in a rustic shtetl. The bemused tone of the prologue, followed by the swirling guitar sound of “Somebody to Love” over the opening credits, keys us to the movie’s constantly shifting mood of unrest. With Spencer Dryden’s forward-motion drumming and Slick’s authoritative yet pleadingly romantic howl, “Somebody to Love” is rightfully held up as a superior example of psychedelic rock. It’s revealed that the song is being heard on a tiny transistor radio by Larry’s son Danny (Aaron Wolff), who can barely concentrate on his Hebrew school studies. (He’s preparing for his Bar Mitzvah.) The lyrics of the song seem fatalistic but are actually cautiously optimistic.
When the truth is found to be lies
An’ all the joy within you dies
Don’t you want somebody to love
Don’t you need somebody to love
Wouldn’t you love somebody to love
You better find someone to love, love
It’s the thin line between “want” and “need” that drives Larry to question the purpose of his life—and why it seems to be inexplicably coming apart. He seeks counsel from three rabbis, but the answers they give him aren’t very helpful. It isn’t until the end when Danny, who has completed his Bar Mitzvah ceremony and is sitting with the most senior rabbi, that the song is reprised. The rabbi alters the opening lyrics of the song slightly and offers them as advice to Danny. This is followed by a gathering storm that forces the school kids to seek shelter. The final shot is of Danny looking at an ominous storm cloud. Here the song is reprised for a third and final time, except this time it all comes together as Danny, having just come of age, seems to grasp what his father does not. That is, sometimes not knowing can be scary, but it can also feel like freedom.
“It’s the Same Old Song” by The Four Tops
Blood Simple was not your typical directorial debut. A blood-soaked neo-noir, it was a calling-card movie that rocked audiences. Released only a couple of months after Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise, Blood Simple was also an independent deadpan comedy, but it was also a scarily tense throwback to all those nasty ‘40s thrillers that revolved around sex, murder, guilt, and the fear of being caught. Before House of Games, before Reservoir Dogs, before One False Move, before The Usual Suspects, before Bound, the Coens reached back into Hollywood’s past and came up with a low-budget contraption built to thrill. It remains one of the most important debut features in modern movie history.
The highlight is an extended wordless sequence where, after a series of double-crosses and assumptions, dumb lug bartender Ray (John Getz) finds himself cleaning up the blood-splattered office of his girlfriend’s husband, who has been shot by the sleazy private investigator hired to kill the cheating couple. (You get all that?) As Ray locks the office door and begins to use his jacket to clean the blood, his co-worker Meurice (Samm-Art Williams) arrives and turns on the jukebox and “It’s the Same Old Song” blasts onto the soundtrack. The song’s jaunty melody is a variation on “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch),” while the lyrics about a former girlfriend who seems to enjoy leaving men in pain tap into the misogyny, the mistrust of women, that courses through film noir. The relentless beat is like the telltale heart of the audience. Like Donovan’s “Atlantis” during the “Billy Bats” sequence in GoodFellas, or Stealer’s Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle with You” in Reservoir Dogs, “It’s the Same Old Song” in Blood Simple heightens our excitement in not wanting to look away. The sequence illustrates that a perfectly chosen pop song can allow you to get away with murder.
“Danny Boy” by Frank Patterson
1990 turned out to be the year of the gangster film, with an emphasis on pop. You had GoodFellas, of course, with its gimme-shelter-from the-storm of violence and cocaine craziness. Abel Ferrara’s great King of New York possessed a Scarface-level of comic scariness that was set to the thumping beat of Schoolly D’s “Am I Black Enough for You?” The most hyped movie of the year, Warren Beatty’s candy-colored Dick Tracy, had songs written by Stephen Sondheim and performed by Madonna. (Her I’m Breathless is actually an underrated gem.) Even the unjustly maligned The Godfather Part III concludes with a nearly 30-minute action payoff, set to the opera Cavalleria rusticana, that remains one of the greatest pieces of sustained action filmmaking ever made. And in Miller’s Crossing, the Coens stage a musically-enhanced action sequence that plays like the ultimate version of a gangland shoot-out.
The movie is what I like to call one of their “tutorials.” Like Blood Simple, The Hudsucker Proxy, even Burn After Reading, the Coens like to make movies that are like “how to’s” on certain genres. Miller’s Crossing is an obsessively detailed re-creation of a ‘30s gangster movie. Everything from the clothes to the ugly mugs to the complicated machinations of the plot to the overly articulated dialogue instructs us on how we should be experiencing the movie. Naturally, there’s an attempted hit on a boss that’s a shoot-the-works knockout. As Leo (Albert Finney), the head of the Irish gang that runs the city, lies in bed while smoking a cigar, we hear Frank Patterson’s version of ”Danny Boy” being played on a record player. This song, the quintessential Irish standard about a mother bidding her son farewell as he goes off to war, builds on the soundtrack as we see the feet of henchmen heading towards Leo’s bedroom. (They’ve been sent by Italian gangster Johnny Caper [Joe Polito] who, among his many grievances, is sick of Leo giving him the high hat.) Leo, sensing something is up, grabs his gun and lunges under his bed right at the moment the gunmen burst in shooting. “Danny Boy” seems to fade for a moment only to come roaring back on the soundtrack as a series of precisely edited shots and movements show Leo defending himself. After shooting one guy in the foot to have him fall to the ground so he can shoot him in the head while still hiding under the bed, Leo grabs a Tommy Gun and systematically goes after the remaining gunmen. There’s a bit of slapstick gruesomeness when Leo pumps what seems like a thousand rounds into one of the men. The climax of the scene has Leo doing a James Cagney pose as he slowly walks down the street, firing the machine gun at a car until it swerves, crashes and explodes. As Leo stands in the middle of the street, triumphant and satisfied, the song ends. The point is clear: war has been declared.
“The Man In Me” by Bob Dylan
Ah, The Big Lebowski. It’s probably the Coens most well-known, most quoted, most revered movie. The follow-up to their great kidnapping comedy Fargo, Lebowski saw the brothers in prankster mode as they used a Raymond Chandler-like structure to riff on male aggression, ignorance, nihilism, and L.A.-based fringe characters. Taking off from a Brazil-like misunderstanding that causes pacifist The Dude (Jeff Bridges), his psycho Vietnam veteran best friend Walter (John Goodman), and their innocent buddy Donnie (Steve Buscemi) to attempt to rip off people they think are dumber than they are, The Big Lebowski is a stoner comedy that reveals just how circularly aimless a lot of plot-driven pulp fiction really is. It really doesn’t add up to much. By the end, most of the characters are back where they started. That’s probably why it has only grown in stature over the last 15 years. The movie’s give-and-take between laid-back detachment and in-your-face cruelty (embodied by Goodman’s towering performance) was a precursor to everything from Jackass to Napoleon Dynamite to Superbad.
The Big Lebowski would seem, at first glance, a heartless comedy of the grotesque, but the soundtrack tells a different story. A celebration of the ‘70s SoCal vibe, the Lebowski soundtrack is both ironic and sincere. You get absurd selections like Kenny Rogers & The First Edition’s “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” and Henry Mancini’s “Lujon” alongside a searing live version of “Dead Flowers” by Townes Van Zandt. Also, as a running gag, you have the movie’s disdain for “the fucking Eagles.” (The Dude’s dislike of the ridiculously popular California band is leftover snobbery from his counterculture youth. There’s no way a group that successful can be good.) And, of course, we mustn’t forget Creedence. For me the best use of music is Bob Dylan’s “The Man in Me.” It’s used a couple of times (including in one of The Dude’s flying-like-Superman hallucinations), but its use in the strikes-and-spares opening-credit sequence sets the movie’s tone beautifully. We watch as serious-looking bowlers line up and execute perfectly controlled rolls. There’s a Busby Berkley-meets-Bob Fosse playfulness to the choreography of the movements. Musically, the song (taken from Dylan’s New Morning) is a laid-back groove with Dylan in fine voice. (This period of his career saw him transitioning from his trademark nasal pleading to his current smoker’s growl.) Lyrically, it’s blessedly devoid of Dylan’s typical skepticism and mistrust. The opening child-like refrain of la-la-la-la-la-la-la is quite affecting. The opening lines are a winking foreshadowing of The Dude’s role in the world.
The man in me will do nearly any task
And as for compensation, there’s a little he would ask
The Dude’s pacifism has morphed into a neverending journey to stay mellow in a world where aggression won’t stand. All he really wants is a new rug, and he is willing to do nearly anything for it. By the end, he’s lost a friend but is possibly a little wiser. The Dude. He abides.
“I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow” by The Soggy Bottom Boys
The current popularity of bluegrass and folk music can be traced back to the runaway success of O Brother, Where Art Thou? A companion piece to the Coens’ hillbilly family comedy Raising Arizona, O Brother was a mix of Homer’s The Odyssey, Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels, and Hee-Haw. Depending on how you looked at it, the movie was either an inspired Depression-era Southern comedy of manners or a condescending, cracker-barrel comedy that made you feel superior to everyone and everything on screen. This trace of superiority the Coens seem to display over their characters (and sometimes the audience) has been something I and many others have grappled with over the years. It all began with Raising Arizona, a rollicking comedy that nevertheless isn’t above ridiculing “regional folk.” (At the time of the film’s release, critics praised the Coens’ sense of quirk and style while bashing David Byrne’s equally quirky but more humane Southern character study True Stories.) Fargo, Burn After Reading, and A Serious Man show the brothers playing it straight, and their filmmaking is better for it. Even True Grit had a more controlled sense of its down-home characters than O Brother. (With No Country for Old Men, they traded in their quirk for Cormac McCarthy’s nihilistic pulp. Talk about an upgrade.)
What saves O Brother, Where Art Thou? is its landmark soundtrack. Produced by T. Bone Burnett, the album consisted of period-specific traditionals and folk standards, used throughout the movie as a kind of running musical commentary as escaped convicts Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney), Delmar O’Donnell (Tim Blake Nelson), and Peter Hogwallop (John Turturro) go on a journey to retrieve some supposed buried treasure. I had thought of highlighting the haunting “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues,” performed in the movie by Chris Thomas King portraying delta bluesman Tommy Johnson, but I opted for “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow.” As performed by The Soggy Bottom Boys (Tommy on guitar, Everett on lead vocals, Delmar and Pete on harmony), the song is heard throughout the movie. (The boys cut the record in one take in a recording booth as a way to make some quick cash. To their surprise, it became a smash hit.) The song is a lament by a man who’s at the end of his rope and has decided to leave everything behind and jump a train. He’s almost welcoming of the relief of death.
It’s fare thee well my old lover
I never expect to see you again
For I’m bound to ride that northern railroad
Perhaps I’ll die upon this train
The song becomes the theme for “Pappy” O’Daniel, (Charles Durning), the cheerfully corrupt (and honest) incumbent governor of Mississippi. Dan Tyminski’s vocal and guitar playing is so joyful that, like a lot of folk and gospel and rural American music, it turns despair into hope. The entire soundtrack is almost contrapuntal to the Coens’ occasional smugness toward the South. The music gives their diorama view of rural life a glimmer of soul.
San Antonio-based film critic Aaron Aradillas is a contributor to The House Next Door, a contributor to Moving Image Source, and the host of “Back at Midnight,” an Internet radio program about film and television.