Longtime Coen-collaborator Carter Burwell has composed music for almost every one of the brothers’ films and while his work is always good, the Coens really come into their element when they choose pre-existing music for their scores. So well is this music integrated that you forget the song wasn’t composed solely for that film, creating some truly iconic moments.
Few filmmakers are as skilled as the Coen brothers at building their movies around the music they use. Often their soundtracks feel natural, and so fitting that films like O Brother, Where Art Thou? and The Big Lebowski effortlessly seem to inhabit the world of their music. Inside Llewyn Davis is possibly their best film musically (provided you’re into folk), so in our musical odyssey we’ll start there and then go through some of the brothers’ best films and the seminal music that makes them so memorable.
Inside Llewyn Davis – Hang me/Fare Thee Well
The Coen brothers’ latest film opens in a smokey club in New York’s Greenwich Village and we are introduced to Llewyn Davis, our eponymous folk singer, giving a live performance. The first song we see Davis (Oscar Isaac) play is “Hang Me”, a traditional song originally made famous by Dave Van Ronk. Isaac gives a minimalistic, brilliantly vulnerable performance that sets a melancholy tone for the rest of the film and hints at the possible Davis is facing.
Another song that crops up throughout the film is “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song)” which had been a moderate hit for Davis and his now dead partner Mike, the song is performed for the soundtrack by Isaac and Mike Mumford which is a testament to the Coen brothers that they even make Mumford & Sons sound good. Other highlights from the soundtrack include a duet from Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan as well as a quick cameo from an at the time unknown Bob Dylan.
Raising Arizona – Way Out There
The brothers proved their ability to perfectly match music to image early on in their career with 1987’s Raising Arizona. A film which gets more and more ridiculous as it goes on, Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter’s baby stealing antics are backed with driving banjos and erratic yodeling arranged by Carter Burwell. It’s a brilliantly composed piece that instantly tells us what kind of film we’re watching, it seems to run seamlessly in line with the film’s bizarre plot, and Cage and Hunter’s southern drawl too.
An infectious piece of yodeling that only the Coens could make work, it was a sign of great things to come.
The Big Lebowski – The Man in Me/Hotel California/Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)
“Sometimes, there’s a man, well, he’s the man for his time and place. He fits right in there. And that’s The Dude…But sometimes there’s a man, sometimes, there’s a man. Aw. I lost my train of thought here. But… aw, hell. I’ve done introduced him enough.”
This is how we meet Jeff Lebowski, possibly the Coens’ best loved character, in 1998’s The Big Lebowski. The film then opens with a great montage of The Dude’s much-loved bowling alley accompanied by Bob Dylan’s “The Man in Me”. It’s all shiny floors and slo-mo bowling and is an awesome, laid-back introduction to The Dude’s world. You can almost smell those pine fresh bowling shoes.
Jesus, one of The Dude’s bowling opponents, is introduced with flamboyant gusto to the sounds of The Gipsy Kings’ flamenco-tinged cover of The Eagles’ classic “Hotel California”. Slick, well-groomed and clad in purple from head to toe, Jesus is the anti-Dude and this song is the perfect embodiment of everything he stands against (“I hate the fuckin’ Eagles man”).
In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Jeff Bridges’ The Dude plummets into a surreal dream world at the hands of pornographer Jackie Treehorn. Jeff Bridges dances his way down an endless staircase, flies down a bowling lane while looking up women’s skirts and is receives a pair of golden bowling shoes from Saddam Hussein, all to the tune of Kenny Rodgers’ “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)”.
The psych-rock classic, originally written as a warning against the dangers of LSD, excellently captures The Dude’s elation before it descends into a chaotic comedown.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? – I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow/ Down to the River to Pray
“There’s no way that’s George Clooney’s real voice.” This was the first thing we all thought when The Soggy Bottom Boys started performing “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow”, not because it’s badly dubbed, just because there’s no way its George Clooney’s real voice.
Credit to the Coens though, it doesn’t detract from the scene at all. Ulysses Everett McGill and his band of fugitives take a break from trying to outrun the law and stop off at a local radio station to record this number which unbeknown to them becomes a hit “as far away as Mobile, Alabama”. The country ballad is heard a number of times throughout the film but it never grows tiring.
In the middle of the woods, the outlaws Everett, Pete, and Delmar come across an angelic congregation clad in white. Like sirens, their sweet song draws in Pete and Delmar, calling them to go “Down to the River to Pray”. Delmar is absolved of all his sins exclaiming, “Well that’s it, boys. I’ve been redeemed.” The infectious and otherworldly refrain – sung by Alison Krauss – can’t fail but draw audiences in.
A Serious Man – Machine Gun/Somebody to Love
One of the Coen’s most criminally underrated films contains quite possibly their best use of music to date. Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) turns to his Jewish faith in a desperate attempt to cope with a string of unfortunate events. One of the Rabbis he visits proceeds to tell him a long-winded, obscure story about a dentist finding hebrew letters engraved on people’s teeth.
The scene is backed by Jimi Hendrix’s live masterpiece “Machine Gun”, chopped and screwed by the Coens almost beyond recognition. It is a mass of screeching guitars and wailing vocals, designed to disorient and perfectly portray what is going on in Larry’s mind.
The plot of A Serious Man is just one big question mark, for the characters and audience alike. The film’s final scene resolves nothing and proceeds to ask more questions as the town prepares for an oncoming tornado. Larry’s son has just got his confiscated personal stereo back and is listening to Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love”, the brilliant psych-rock song which manages to be upbeat and bleak simultaneously, perfectly capturing the feeling at the end of the film.
When the song properly kicks in as the screen cuts to black it’s impossible not to feel satisfied at what should be such an unsatisfying ending.