I think my first encounter of a film made by the Coen brothers must have been RAISING ARIZONA, it was a movie that like THE BIG LEBOWSKI was more of an acquired taste or Cult movie rather than a box office attraction like FARGO and the more recent TRUE GRIT re make, I was going to call this a re-boot but then a friend said well, it’s a remake because it was actually more faithful to the original book than the John Wayne version was, which after reading the book after all these years is very true.
This is not however an article about the Coen Brothers, but they are I think a good starting point. There were a number of people and things that linked the films of the Coen brothers as in they often utilised the talents of certain professionals within their movies, and also because their movies were entertaining clever and well made, but for me personally the link came in the form of the musical scores which in the main were the work of composer Carter Burwell, and I have to say I thnk it was due to seeing the soundtrack album to RAISING ARIZONA and buying it that I then decided to take a look at the movie, so it was a case of the music in this case making me to want to see the film, but this I think you will agree is not something that out of the ordinary with us film music collectors.
FARGO is often referred to as the Coen’s breakout film, which I don’t think I would disagree with. It took the cinema world by storm when it was released back in 1996 and received not only critical acclaim but had the added bonus of being commercially successful for the film making duo. It, garnered Academy Awards for best original screenplay, best actress and was nominated in five other categories. The score for FARGO also put Burwell on the map, with an attractively sombre and subtle sounding soundtrack which suited perfectly the at times comedic mood of the movie and added layers of atmosphere and depth to an already compelling and entertaining storyline. I would not say that the music made the movie better, but it certainly supported it in many ways and enhanced the various scenarios that unfolded on screen.
Burwell worked on nearly all of the Coen’s movies starting with BLOOD SIMPLE in 1984, Burwell was initially recommended to the Coen’s by Skip Lievsay who worked with them as a sound editor.
Burwell was not at this stage of his career known as a film music composer, in fact he was not known as a composer, he had a musical background, but as for the actual scoring of feature films, well this was something alien to him at the time. I am told that when he was asked to score BLOOD SIMPLE he was working as a lab technician, it’s weird that so many film music composers did not choose the profession when they started out on ther careers, instead many were studying to be lawyers or doctors and some like Burwell working in science. Burwell recollected in an interview that Joel Coen had interviewed many film music composers to work on BLOOD SIMPLE and was looking for someone on the same wavelength as him and his Brother, and also someone who knew what they were doing. Which Burwell said was certainly not him at that time. He had no experience of movie music and was in his words lacking in knowledge on the subject. This was something that certainly changed over the years with Burwell scoring fifteen out of the eighteen Coen Brothers movies and going on to become an in demand composer by numerous other directors and producers,
The TWILIGHT saga being just one example, in fact I would say that it was in the TWILIGHT movies he worked upon that we as collectors of film music and fans in general of music in film saw the composer mature musically, expanding his musical vocabulary and showing us that he was able to easily adapt his musical skills to any genre and scenario that he was asked to work on.
The soundtrack I think was one that had to it a very serious sound, when the scene or maybe the dialogue was less than sombre, thus somewhat confusing the watching audience who were naturally thinking that because the music began to take on a more serious or darker tone that maybe something less than light was about to happen, so the audience were drawn into a scenario that turned out to be not as downbeat as the music had led them to assume. Burwell’s music for the Coen’s movies is in tune with the style of film making that they undertake, with shades of light that are at times overshadowed and interlinked with dark interludes and sombre sounding passages. It is a clever method of keeping things interesting I suppose. The composer also would adopt this style over and over in many of his scores and not just those that he penned for the Coen’s. I think that it is this way of scoring that keeps Burwell interesting and certainly makes each and every one of his soundtracks an interesting, intelligent and inventive audio experience. I am no expert on the composer or indeed the Coen brothers, but I have to say I have always enjoyed their style of filmmaking and enjoyed even more the music that Burwell created for them. The composer forged collaborations with other film makers,
Martin McDonagh for example, the composer working on all his movies to date (apart from SIX SHOOTER which was a short) including IN BRUGES and the acclaimed THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING MISSOURI. The latter in my opinion being scored not only astutely but also with much sensitivity. The score never becoming overbearing or intrusive but always adding support and atmosphere to the proceedings. The composers delicate approach giving the movie a soundtrack that was totally in tune with the story that was unfolding on screen, and at the same time becoming an integral and important part of that storyline, underlining and punctuating each and every character within the film.
In my opinion Burwell is a talented composer who at times utilises instrumentation that one would not normally associate with the subject matter that he is enhancing and supporting, maybe this is why his film scores are so affecting and also have to them life away from any scenarios or images. His score for THREE BILLBOARDS I have to say is probably one of the most listened works from the composer in my collection, the subtle yet effective way in which the composer places the music being a key factor of the success of the movie, but this is just my opinion. There are obvious nods to the western score, with guitar and percussion underlining various moments within the film, it is dramatic but has to it a heart that at times is overflowing with emotion, melancholy and poignancy.
The TWILIGHT movies were and still are a popular series of contemporary Vampire stories, which have a whole new way of looking at the tales of the undead and are a million miles away from the gothic horrors as produced by the likes of Hammer films some five decades previous. The movies in the saga sparked an amazing hike in interest amongst cinema audiences with many younger filmgoers being attracted to them. The saga also initiated a spike in reading as in the novels written by author Stephanie Meyer. Burwell worked on the original movie, TWILIGHT and returned for the third and fourth instalments TWILIGHT BREAKING DAWN 1 and 2 with the second movie in the series NEW MOON being scored by French composer Alexander Desplat, who took some of Burwell’s motifs and utilised these within his score. Burwell’s soundtracks for the series are a triumph, they are filled with a rich abundance of melody and have a striking and resounding thematic quality, the composer adding a fragile but dramatic musical twist to films and giving them a greater atmosphere and higher level on intenseness. The composer’s music for the movie MILLERS CROSSING too must be mentioned, it is a delightful score in part but also in keeping with the subject matter ventures into darker and more apprehensive interludes. The composer incorporated an Irish sound into his score again something that was in tune with the film’s storyline. The actual score was quite a brief one, but the music being used sparingly not only worked but managed to elevate the dramatic content of the movie to higher levels of intensity. It is a score I must admit, I ignored at first but one that I have grown to enjoy and appreciate more and more over the years. The central theme being particularly poignant and affecting. Its fragility and the delicate sounding persona of it being alluring and enriching and being another case of the composer providing a soundtrack that at times was scored away from the action or scenarios that were on screen.
One of my favourite Burwell scores in recent years must be for the Coen Brothers movie HAIL CAESAR.
I was drawn to this film and more so the music right from the start, the soundtrack is filled with varying styles and is also made up from an abundance of musical colours and textures, it is for me one of those soundtracks that one never tires of and also one that once you start to listen you have to stay with it till the end. It is a captivating score and, I think a cleverly woven work that is not only compelling and inventive but highly entertaining. This 2016 black comedy film stars Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, and Channing Tatum. Burwell’s score is not only perfect for the movie but also accomplished and polished. The film follows a single day in the life of Eddie Mannix who is a Hollywood fixer for Capitol films, it is set in the early 1950’sMannix played by Josh Brolin solves problems for the studio and also for stars of the day. But when an important star, portrayed by George Clooney disappears, Eddie is forced to do more than just fix things. Brilliant movie, great score, what more could one want.
Another score that I feel I should make mention of is Burwell’s moving and beautiful music for the Todd Haynes directed WONDERSTRUCK which was released in 2017, again it is a work that has been crafted superbly, the composer creating a plethora of engaging and effective themes for the movie. The film charts the stories of two children, one born in 1927 the other born in 1977. I do urge you try and watch the movie, so I will not go any further with the information on the plot. Burwell’s music is exquisite, and it adds a greater atmosphere to both the stories that unfold within the film, again the music is subtle but because of this it becomes even more effectual. I think if I was asked what four scores by Burwell would you choose to play back to back WONDERSTRUCK would definitely make the quartet.
In recent years I suppose one could say that the composer has become more involved in the scoring of movies that have a wider audience appeal TWILIGHT for instance and also examples such as GOODBYE CHRISTOPHER ROBIN and THE GOOD LIAR. But this is a testament to the talent and the adaptability of this composer, who is abundantly able to tailor his style and fashion scores for each genre and every scenario. I loved his GODS AND MONSTERS, was totally wowed by the sensitivity of his score for MILDRED PRICE , haunted by his lilting and melancholy central theme for MILLERS CROSSING and amazed by his delicate touch on THREE BILLBOARDS.
The best way to acquaint oneself with the music of Carter Burwell would be I think to take a listen to the recording by the Brussels Philharmonic Orchestra, it is in essence a best of album, but focuses upon scores or themes from them that maybe are not the most popular within Burwell’s canon. It opens with the melancholy and lilting Celtic flavoured theme for MILLERS CROSSING, which is a very good place to begin, it displays the thematic prowess that the composer is capable of creating, with soft but at the same time affecting tone poems, that invade ones subconscious and linger there long after the music has ceased to play.
The recording moves on to the composer’s music for FARGO, with the track FARGO, NORTH DAKOTA representing the score. This too is an emotive and even proud sounding piece that has epic connotations, strings and percussion combining with a flurry of brass to fashion an impressive and majestic sound.
So much for the composer taking a subtle approach on his scores, the recording also contains BELLA’S LULLABY from TWILIGHT and selections from movies such as A SERIOUS MAN, TRUE GRIT, THE MAN WHO WAS’NT THERE, GODS AND MONSTERS, BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, THE SPANISH PRISONER, MILDRED PRICE, CAROL, HAIL CAESAR, WONDERSTRUCK, THREE BILLBOARDS and so many others. It is without a doubt one of the most gratifying listening experiences I have had in a long in fact its nearly an hour of superbly crafted music that is delightfully charming and totally enveloping.