Joel and Ethan Coen are two of the most celebrated filmmakers in America. It’s hard to think of a set of current auteurs with a better body of work (if you’re willing to look past Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers). But one of the most endearing parts of the duo is the way music is used in their films.
They are careful and restrained involving the execution of the music (See: No Country For Old Men, which as a sparse and lonely feel because of an overall lack of music), but they also know when to break out tunes (See: A pitch-perfect Big Lebowski soundtrack, and a surprising hit soundtrack for O Brother Where Art Thou?).
So, today we’ll take a look at some of the best songs that are used in the duo’s movies.
The Coen’s big breakthrough, Fargo, didn’t feature much pop music. Instead, it had a sparse, lonely soundtrack that drew you into the harsh surrounding winter. But for just a moment, you can hear the track “These Boots Are Made for Walkin” in Carl and Gaear’s car radio. It’s one of a few of the Coen’s nod to filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, who also used the song in Full Metal Jacket.
Maybe there’s no better way to introduce one of the many antagonists in The Big Lebowski than with a personalized version of a song by the Eagles — a band that Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski can’t stand. “Hotel California,” as performed by the Gipsy Kings, introduces Jesus Quintana — the purple-uniform wearing pederast that did six months in Chino for exposing himself to an eight-year old. The song almost feels tailored to incite rage from the mellow, agreeable Dude from the flamenco-spiced take on an Eagles favorite.
As the next two songs will show, some of the most effective use of music can be found as the movie is just ending. “CIA Man” by the Fugs shows how a single song can tie up an entire movie filled with “what the hell?” moments as in Burn After Reading. Filled with funny lines and ironic statements, it’s the perfect summary to J.K. Simmons’ hilarious final reflection on the insane string of events that unfurl late in the movie.
Spoiler alert: Things rapidly turn bad for Larry Gopnik and his family toward the end of A Serious Man. The movie ends on a defined question mark, leaving the audience to debate whether things get ugly or not (Does Larry’s son escape from the tornado? Why does his doctor need to see him so urgently?) But the surprise, cliffhanger ending is kind of what the whole buildup of the movie is about.
The soundtrack depends on some key Jefferson Airplane tracks, which can be heard through Larry’s son’s headphones at the very end of the film. The standout track is “Somebody to Love,” a song which is optimistic, depressing, frightening and clarifying all at the same time.
It’s hard to think of a prettier song to be “saved” to than “Down To the River to Pray.” Led by Alison Krauss on the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack, the song guides the trio of Everett, Pete and Delmar to a service where Delmar is quick to wash away his sins.
“Well, that’s it boys,” the not-so-quick-witted Delmar says over some truly angelic singing. “I’ve been redeemed. The preacher done washed away all of my sins and transgressions. It’s the straight and narrow from here on out, and heaven everlasting is my reward.”
In a funny way, it shows the immediate, moving effect that can come from music. Religion is almost secondary to the track, which is pure and clarifying in the way the voices reverberate across the lake, and it has two of the three travelers rushing for the water.
The Dude has a pretty vivid dream while he’s passed out after a party at Jackie Treehorn’s Malibu, Calif. residence. The dream plays out as Gutterballs — the sort-of skin flick starring his sort-of love interest, Maude Lebowski. It features Saddam Hussein as the guy manning the counter at the bowling alley, an endless set of stairs and an army of bowling-pin-clad cuties.
But maybe the most entertaining part of The Dude’s bowling-alley-on-drugs fantasy is the way he clumsily shakes his behind to Kenny Rogers and the First Edition’s rendition of “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In).”
Nicholas Cage’s chase scene in Raising Arizona is hilarious enough without music. There’s plenty of great, confusing elements: the brace-face teenager clerk that turns badass when he gets his hands on a massive handgun, Cage’s struggle to keep a huge package of Huggies in his arm while trying to lose the cops, the chained dog that breaks free, and Cage’s furious wife played by Holly Hunter. But when put behind a driving banjo and yodeling part, it becomes hysterical, adding yet another element for the audience to marvel at how ridiculous the whole situation is.
3 – “Danny Boy” – Miller’s Crossing
“Danny Boy” isn’t necessarily a song that you’d think to pair with hardcore mob violence. But the Coens seem to make it work by creating a hard contrast between rounds of gunfire and the phonograph-amplified version of the song. Albert Finney relaxes with the track and a cigar before fighting for his own life, and you almost wonder if “Danny Boy” gives him the steady mind and hand to do so.
2 – “The Man in Me” – _The Big Lebowsk_i
Bob Dylan’s “The Man in Me” opens up what is surely the Coen’s most connected-with and still-discussed movie in their catalog. The lazy, rolling track plays behind the familiar sounds and image’s of The Dude’s bowling alley, and the track is a musical response to Sam Elliott’s brief introduction to The Dude just minutes before: “Sometimes there’s a man, and I’m talking about The Dude here, sometimes there’s a man, well, he’s the man for his time and place. He fit’s right in there. And that’s The Dude in Los Angeles.”
While it’s been debated whether he wrote the song or not, “Man of Constant Sorrow” is most-widely attributed to being written by a fiddler named Dick Burnett in the early 1900s. A new, revamped version was featured in O Brother Where Art Thou, which was a defining moment for the movie. The single wasn’t only a great part of the movie — carrying the three main characters to become unrealized super stars — but it was a huge hit too, with the album going on to sell over seven million copies. The song’s repetition could get annoying throughout O Brother if it wasn’t so good, and every time it turns up, it’s a welcome surprise.