Hail, Caesar!, the new Coen brothers film, has arrived. It’s always an occasion when the Minnesota brothers release their latest offering; not always a joyous occasion, granted, as the quality of their output has been a little uneven in the latter part of their career – but an occasion nonetheless. While it may be difficult to predict the genre or tone of each movie, one thing is certain – that the soundtrack will at least be interesting. The Coens have always prided themselves on collaborating with the absolute best for the job, which stretches right back to their first venture, Blood Simple (1984), when they started working with the master composer Carter Burwell, the very same technician who has just delivered an absolute killer score for Hail, Caesar!
Music has always been a major factor in the appeal of the Coens’ films and even the lack of it (see No Country For Old Men) is cause for widespread interest. Whether using Burwell or second-in-command T Bone Burnett, there is always much joy to be drawn from their collaborative work with these incredible composers. Key scenes such as the dream sequence at the bowling alley in The Big Lebowski, or the classic Soggy Bottom Boys sequences in O Brother Where Art Thou, are the cherries on top of the richly textured icing on their stylish cakes, and the movies would be very different without them. They’re not just there for light relief but to add soul, passion and body to the films: for example, so important is it to the feel of the film that it’s almost impossible to think of The Dude’s Gutterballs set piece divorced from Kenny Rogers’ memorable version of I Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In). The keen sense of brotherhood that runs through their films is also helped along by such sequences. Clearly, being brothers themselves is a major factor in this, but often it is that male bonding that draws the best out of their characters. The sailor scene in Hail! Caesar starring Channing Tatum is a great example of comedy, and in addition to simply being a superb piece of cinema it also highlights the sentiment of ‘Who needs a dame when you’ve got your bros?’ The high camp of the sequence is slightly unchartered land for the Coens, but works brilliantly against the glitzy backdrop of the Hollywood musical. This fraternal thread is explored further in Hail! Caesar as the close knit band of communists fight for the attention of George Clooney’s character from the male-dominated studio heads; see how he loves it.
Carter Burwell has worked on nearly all of the Coens’ films and Hail, Caesar! can perhaps be seen as a culmination, almost a greatest hits, of his previous collaborations. The film follows a day in the life of a 1950s Hollywood studio fixer, Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a man pushed to the brink of madness by a particularly bad day at the office. One scene short of completing the studio’s new biblical epic, Hail, Caesar!’s handsome lead Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is kidnapped. Throw in evil journalist twins (Tilda Swinton x2), a pregnant swimming starlet (Scarlett Johannson) and a Western star (show-stealer Alden Ehrenreich), thrown out of his depth with one impossible line in a period drama, and you have a traditional screwball comedy of sorts. As most reviews have attested, it is a little uneven and the narrative tries a little hard to stick. There are some incredibly lavish sequences, and Brolin manages to hold the movie together as the rest of the cast make little more than cameo appearances (Ralph Fiennes is brilliantly funny in one scene and then he is gone). There are some great set pieces – jaw dropping even – and it is undeniable that the music is the magic glue here that turns the film into something special when it could quite easily have completely nosedived. There is definitely more Hudsucker Proxy than Lebowski in this comedy, with acceptable hammy overacting being a part of the tapestry.
The eclectic nature of the movie presents something of a challenge for composer Burwell as moods shift continually in following Brolin as he hops from one sound stage to another. The soundtrack to the Biblical sequence is incredible and entirely re-creates the spectacle and class of those epic features the film sets out to imitate. The cinematography by Roger Deakins is equally as stunning: no sooner are we settled into the swords and sandals vibe and we are whisked away to a tale of the Wild West, a period drawing-room drama or an aquatic musical in the style of Esther Williams, and each time Burwell steps up to the plate with the perfect accompaniment. Perhaps the highlight of the film is the On The Town-style song and dance number, led by Channing Tatum: a perfect tribute to Gene Kelly’s classic routines with a crew of sailors in a barroom, it’s difficult to believe that this was not shot 60 years ago. While the film has been met with some indifference by critics and Coen fans alike, there is no denying the brothers’ ability to match stunning images with beautiful, quirky, moving and spine-chilling scores. Burwell may well be revisiting familiar ground in this movie, resurrecting phrasings from True Grit, Fargo or Raising Arizona, but it is exactly right for this movie. In a recent interview with NPR, Burwell spoke of this challenge of hopping about, which felt like several films were being filmed at the same time:
In an interview with Exploitation director Larry Cohen (no relation), Burwell explains how working with James Brown on the soundtrack to 1974’s Black Caesar (also no relation!), the Godfather of Soul would just give Cohen long passages of music to stick into the film. Cohen would say, “I don’t want that much”, and Brown would be puzzled because he had given him more than he needed, so what was the problem? This is perhaps where the secret to the Coens’ success lies when exploring the marriage between image and tunes. They have never been guilty of taking a back seat when it comes to devising soundtracks, and films like O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000) And Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) have proved that the significance of the music can overtake that of the film, and the Coens have always been right there in the mix.
It is a fair surmise to consider that the Coens make movies like Hail, Caesar! to cater for musical set pieces; clearly an all-out hoedown would not sit too well in the gothic Western setting of No Country For Old Men, but their love of breaking out of narrative to provide these musical asides appears to be too much of a temptation. Their latest venture cries out for such scenes and subsequently satisfies.
O Brother Where Art Thou, a true fan favourite and Clooney team-up that enjoyed favourable reviews, was loosely based on Homer’s Odyssey and followed a hapless trio of chain-gang escapees across the American Deep South in the 1930s. There is much to enjoy in the movie: razor-sharp comedy, stunning sepia landscapes and undoubtedly one of the finest soundtracks of the Coens’ career. The music provided by their other go-to-guy, former guitarist in Bob Dylan’s band, T Bone Burnett, is a revelation of how music and film can work for each other with equally pleasing results. The film’s prohibition-era setting lends itself by default to the blend of gospel, folk and blues that shaped a nation, and Burnett revels in it. In a memorable sequence that sees the trio enter a recording studio and record I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow as The Soggy Bottom Boys (which won a Grammy award), a classic scene is created. Equally as mesmeric is the scene that finds our heroes seduced by three bathing sirens in a lake singing Go To Sleep You Little Baby. Strangely, the track – originally recorded by Alison Krauss, Gillian Welch and Emmylou Harris for the film – is absent from the soundtrack album. Again this is a sequence that stands out as a perfect example of all that is good when the Coens get the balance right. Burnett’s work was so successful it spawned a sequel project, Down From The Mountain, a live show at the Ryman auditorium in Nashville featuring artists from the movie soundtrack, extending the experience by incorporating a new set of songs.
Burnett’s work on Inside Llewyn Davis was equally astounding, bringing the best vocally from its stars Justin Timberlake, Carey Mulligan and current pin-up boy Oscar Isaac (Ex-Machina, Star Wars: The Force Awakens), and then handing over the reins to the likes of Jack White, Joan Baez, Emmylou Harris and Patti Smith for a similar spin-off project. Another Day Another Time, a filmed event at New York Town Hall in 2013, also became a surprise success as an album. Footage of the recording process sees a high-level studio presence from the Coens, who are seemingly loving every minute. It seems that Burnett can do no wrong, and his ridiculously brilliant recent work on TV’s True Detective seals that claim with a kiss.
The back catalogue of Coen brothers’ soundtracks is well worth exploring, with great joy to be had from such greats as The Big Lebowski and Fargo, but also check out lesser-known works in The Man Who Wasn’t There and A Serious Man. Their commitment to providing perfect sound and vision is a masterclass to behold.