Music in the movies: Carter Burwell

As True Grit shoots its way into cinemas, Glen takes a timely look back at composer Carter Burwell’s collaborations with the Coen brothers...

With True Grit about to hit UK cinemas, I thought now would be an ideal time to look at the numerous collaborations between the Coen brothers and Carter Burwell, who composed music for all but one of their films.

Blood Simple

The start of the long and successful working relationship between Burwell and the Coen brothers started with his work on their debut, as he was the cheapest composer they could find. The fact that they found a composer of such high quality on the cheap was fortuitous, considering the fantastic results their collaborations have produced over the years.

The score is understated and simple, utilising a piano motif that carries much of the piece. There are also synth passages that add extra layers to his work here, which is haunting, but with a strong sense of playfulness.

Ad – content continues below

Raising Arizona

The playfulness hinted at in the score for Blood Simple is explored further here, but whereas the previous score was a haunting and dark piece with a playful undercurrent; the score for Raising Arizona sees the roles reversed, as the dominant playfulness is underpinned with darkness, which is particularly evident in the nightmare sequences.

The majority of the score, though, is as madcap and off the wall as the film it accompanies, as a number of styles collide to create an infectiously entertaining and layered score that really showcases Burwell’s versatility and his ability to compose the perfect pieces to accompany the action playing out on screen.

If all that wasn’t enough, it features some damn fine yodelling.

Miller’s Crossing

Ad – content continues below

Not ones to repeat themselves, the Coens follow up their noir and comedy outings by tackling the gangster genre and, for me, the film and the soundtrack rank amongst the highlights of both the Coens’ and Burwell’s body of work.

Not only does Burwell compose a rich score that really evokes a sense of time and place, but it also reflects the mood and feel conjured up by the Coens through the setting and choice of colour schemes throughout the film.

Some of the sourced material used here doesn’t quite do it for me, but the score itself is a master class in composing. Whilst it may not match the variety of his previous work in Raising Arizona, it more than makes up for it in the quality of the pieces that effectively elicit the required moods.

Barton Fink

Barton Fink showcases some of the finest use of sound out of any of the Coens’ back catalogue and the sound used contains hints to the meaning of certain scenes and recurring effects reflect the moods of characters.

Burwell’s score accentuates said effects, particularly through the violin work accompanying the mosquito effects. There’s a strong sense of experimentation through much of Burwell’s work here, making listening to his compositions a compelling experience.

Ad – content continues below

Like many of the other scores on this list, this hasn’t been given a great release and is bundled in with the Fargoscore, so experiencing it with the movie is the best way to approach Burwell’s work here.

The Hudsucker Proxy

Another score that sees Burwell in a playful mood, the Hudsucker Proxy sees the composer capture the comedic and satirical tone of the film.

His original compositions are supplemented by Russian composer Aram Khachaturian’s work from his Spartacus ballet. Much of the score has an ethereal feel to it, with set pieces to portray the journeys of the protagonist.

Playful and dramatic, it’s a shame, then, that there isn’t a better release showcasing Burwell’s work here, as the one available, which currently clocks in at around thirty minutes, misses out a lot of great material.


Ad – content continues below

Much of Burwell’s score here is based upon a Norwegian folk song titled Den Bortkomne Sauen (The Lost Sheep), which isn’t unusual, given the fact that many of Burwell’s compositions for the Coens have a focused point of inspiration.

The pieces inspired by this folk song act as the leitmotif that carries much of the film to great effect, utilising different arrangements and offering variations of the theme, all of which are at their core heartbreaking. But they also convey the sparseness of the Minnesota landscape.  

The Big Lebowski

The Coens had a number of songs in mind for use in the film and enlisted the help of T-Bone Burnett to assist in picking out other material to reflect the mood that they were looking to convey. With that being the case, Burwell’s score also had to compliment the material, so his score takes on a Sixties / Seventies feel, which is very much in keeping with the character of The Dude.

It’s not just The Dude who has a musical signature, though, as other characters such as the Stranger, the German Nihilists and Jackie Treehorn all have distinct musical motifs. It’s a case where Burwell’s compositions get overshadowed by Burnett’s contribution, but what he did compose was of his usually high standard.

Ad – content continues below

T-Bone Burnett was the subject of a previous column and can found in the Music in the movies list which is linked at the bottom of the article. He also had a huge involvement in the only film of the Coens that Burwell wasn’t involved in with, O Brother, Where Art Thou.

The Man Who Wasn’t There

Burwell’s score for the Coens’ modern noir is not his strongest effort and is overshadowed by the use of sourced classical pieces by Mozart and Beethoven in the film, which seem to play out in the key scenes. Classical pieces aside, though Burwell uses a variation of a simple theme to carry his compositions, which are downplayed pieces that capture the tone of the film.

There’s nothing showy here, but that’s not what the film calls for, and although this is not my favourite of Burwell’s compositions for the Coens, I acknowledge that what he produced here services the film, which is what’s most important.

Intolerable Cruelty

Another film where Burwell’s score isn’t the main focus of the use of music in the film, as the Coens opted for a number of sourced tracks. This is also the case with the accompanying soundtrack, which features six of Burwell’s compositions, missing out a number of great pieces as a result.

Ad – content continues below

Admittedly, this is perhaps not one that will appeal to anyone other than Burwell completists, hence the focus on sourced material. His compositions have a strong sense of fun and whimsy with occasional dark and dramatic undertones.

The Ladykillers

As is the case with The Big Lebowski and Intolerable Cruelty, Burwell’s contribution here isn’t as significant as many of his other collaborations with the Coens, but his talents can still be heard nonetheless.

T-Bone Burnett was called upon to source a number of classic and contemporary gospel, soul and R&B tracks, to make a soundtrack that is far superior to the film itself.

No Country For Old Men

Ad – content continues below

I think this is one of my favourite examples of a lack of a score benefiting the mood and tone of a film. The Coens wanted a minimalist approach to the score from Burwell, which set their long-term collaborator an interesting challenge, as he soon found that many of the techniques he employed early on in the writing process didn’t fit with the filmmakers’ vision.

In total, there’s around 16 minutes of music in the entire film, which is unusual by Hollywood’s standards for a film of this length. But, then again, both the Coens and Burwell aren’t ones to shy away from breaking convention.

Burn After Reading

I know there are some that don’t hold this film in high regard, particularly when compared to the Coens’ work that bookended it. However, it’s a film that I enjoy a great deal.

The film captures a sense of a classic spy caper in almost every sense, from the Saul Bass-esque poster through to Burwell’s brilliant score that perfectly captures the sense of paranoia.

Although there are some light moments and the action on screen is often played for laughs, Burwell plays the score straight, which is a large part of its effectiveness. The contrasts between Malkovich’s gradual breakdown and the general cluelessness of the other characters, with Burwell’s score behind them, are such a huge part of why I enjoy the film.

Ad – content continues below

A Serious Man

Such a large part of the film relies on Jefferson Airplane’s Somebody To Love, as the opening lines of the song pretty much encapsulate the mood of the protagonist and sum up the tone of the film. So, it’s easy for Burwell’s work here to get overshadowed, which is a shame ,considering it’s easily among the finest compositions he’s produced for the Coens.

His score is delicate and restrained, but hugely affecting, and sits well alongside some excellent sourced material, never seeming oppressive. Perhaps not the best standalone listen, but certainly one that works incredibly well as an accompaniment to the film.

Follow Den Of Geek on Twitter right here.