Adam D'Arpino December 31, 2013
No big surprise, but the Coen Brothers “Inside Llewyn Davis” has been getting raves, not just for the film, rooted in the ’60s folk scene, but for the T-Bone Burnett-produced soundtrack that gets boosts from Justin Timberlake, Punch Brothers, and leading man Oscar Isaac as well.
The art of masterfully setting music to moving pictures is nothing new to the Coens, who have been delivering great scenes set to just the right notes since 1984’s “Blood Simple.” In honor of the folksy beauty of “Llewyn,” here are the ten greatest musical moments sprung from the minds of everyone’s favorite two-headed directing monster.
10. True Grit – “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”
A somewhat minor blip in the Coen’s filmography, “True Grit,” was still a beautiful movie in a lot of ways, with a sweeping score from frequent Coens collaborator Carter Burwell. Much of the music is an extension of the hymn “In the Everlasting Arms,” which is never more tearjerkingly poignant than when it’s being delivered by the wistful southern voice of Iris DeMent as Mattie Ross slowly walks away from Rooster Cogburn’s grave, as Mattie’s voiceover laments how “time just gets away from us.”
9. Raising Arizona – “Way Out There”
Both the Coens and Carter Burwell showed their range in “Raising Arizona,” with the Coens following up their dark, draining debut “Blood Simple” with an eccentric, lighthearted comedy, with Burwell providing an oddball soundtrack to match. The movie’s most memorable scenes were frequently accompanied by music that consisted of little more than some scrappy banjo strumming and frenetic yodeling. But sometimes perfection comes in simple packages, and Burwell’s strums and screams work to frantic perfection as Nic Cage’s Hi commits the most adorable crime ever — stealing diapers for his new (kidnapped) baby.
8. O Brother Where Art Thou – “Man of Constant Sorrow”
What’s more unlikely than a folk musical adaptation of The Odyssey, set in the Depression-era south becoming a box-office success? Probably a traditional folk song from said movie receiving mainstream radio play, and the soundtrack going platinum many times over. (It doesn’t hurt that soundtrack took home Album of the Year at the 2002 Grammys. Of course, having George Clooney on your side always helps.) “Man of Constant Sorrow,” the soundtrack’s centerpiece, is pure fun that also functions as a plot device the Soggy Bottom Boys rising to fame after recording the tune, eventually achieving Bieber-esque levels of audience hysteria.
7. The Big Lebowski – “Hotel California”
What exactly are we to make of The Jesus? He pops up into our lives for about five magical scene-stealing minutes, touches his bowling ball and gyrates in some disturbing ways, is shown going door to door as a sex offender, and then somehow leaves as wanting more. Much of the time he’s onscreen, he’s rolling to to a Spanish-language version of The Eagles’ “Hotel California.” The Dude may hate the f**king Eagles, but something about the Spanish version of their biggest hit adds another thick golden layer to this already amazing slice of absurdity.
6. Miller’s Crossing – “Danny Boy”
The Coens’ Prohibition-set crime noir “Miller’s Crossing” is laced with gorgeous traditional Irish-inspired music. But Albert Finney going all “my little friend” on rival gang members during an assassination attempt as a gorgeous version of Danny Boy crescendos with his house now ablaze in the background is twisted and somehow beautiful in a way that quintessentially Coen. If there was ever one scene that completely encapsulated why we love Coen Brothers movies, this might be it.
5. O Brother Where Art Thou – “Didn’t Leave Nobody but the Baby”
The “sirens” portion of “O Brother” comes when our bumbling trio of protagonists are rendered powerless against the mercilessly pretty cries of three mysterious ladies. Crooned to perfection by the formidable trio of Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, and Gillian Welch, the lullaby makes the strange, haunting, funny scene the best musical sequence in a movie full of great ones. (PS: for a creepy good time, pause on the soul-destroying face of John Turturro at 1:51)
4. A Serious Man – “Somebody to Love”
“A Serious Man” is a polarizing enigma of a Coen Brothers movie — too dark and mean-spirited for some, while sitting close to the jilted, cynical hearts of others. (Our own Jordan Hoffman recently named it the best Coen Brothers movie.) So depending on how you feel about the Brother’s personal, dark, slightly misanthropic tale of a modern day (well, ’60s day) Job, you might just love Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love.” The song comes up a few times throughout the movie, but is most effective while playing like a foreboding warning siren, as the pathetic Larry Gopnik gets some presumably bad news about a recent x-ray and his teenage son’s class struggles to dodge a massive storm.
3. Blood Simple – “It’s the Same Old Song”
What’s more Coen-esque than combining nihilistic violence with comedic absurdity? Outside of missing money, probably nothing. The final scene of their masterful debut “Blood Simple” combines these elements perfectly, with our heroine Abby brutally stabbing and shooting her would-be assassin Visser through a door, falsely believing it to be her husband, before the credits run to The Four Top’s light and breezy Motown hit “It’s the Same Old Song.” Fun fact: during the movies initial release on home video, the song was replaced by “I’m a Believer” due to a copyright dispute.
2. Miller’s Crossing – “Opening Titles”
While the “Danny Boy” shootout probably counts as the most memorable musical sequence in “Miller’s Crossing,” the opening titles, set to Carter Burwell’s gorgeous, traditional Irish-inpsired, how-was-he-possibility-not-nominated-for-an-Oscar score, is the most masterful. A beautiful shot the lingers on treetops as the weepy strings and a nostalgic horns mirror each other, before we watch as a fedora float through the woods, perfectly setting the tone for what just might be the Coen’s most cinematically and musically pretty movie.
1. The Big Lebowski – “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition my Condition Was In)”
After being drugged by sleaze ball porn producer Jackie Treehorn, our humble hero is launched into a mystical world where Saddam Hussein is a purveyor of bowling shoes, humans levitate readily down bowling lanes, and the tune “Just Dropped In” leads to some inspired dance moves, both on the part of the dude, as well as some dancing bowling alley ladies. Performed by Kenny Rodgers and penned by classic American songwriter Mickey Newbury, this acid flashback of a song is the perfect backdrop for the Dude’s erotic bowling-inspired dream odyssey. As is the case for almost all of “Lebowski,” you’d be a fool to focus on the “why” here, instead of just enjoying the silly ride.
A serious man, Adam d'arpino, Carter Burwell, Inside Llewyn Davis, Miller's crossing, Movie music, Raising arizona, The big lebowski, The coen brothers