Joel and Ethan Coen have long made a habit of using music to help tell stories, whether employing it for darkly comedic purposes or as simple backing to enhance the moods of their films. They’ve enjoyed collaborations with composer Carter Burwell and music supervisor T. Bone Burnett, both of whom have helped the filmmaking team forge strong connections between music and filmmaking. To illustrate this connection, here are seven musical moments from the Coens’ films that are impossible to forget.
Miller’s Crossing — “Danny Boy”
The “Danny Boy” shootout sequence is unlike any scene the Coen brothers have ever done. Both auteurs and chameleons, they’ve pumped out consistently strong work across many genres. But they still have the ability to surprise, and the use of “Danny Boy” here is one such surprise. In the scene, Albert Finney’s Leo proves to be one of the Coens’ greatest cinematic badasses, single-handedly laying destruction to his attackers as his home goes up in flames. The orchestration of the scene is fantastic, from the way the assailants are shown as shadowy figures walking up the stairs, to Leo’s silent realization of what’s going on as the dead man’s cigarette from the floor below sends smoke billowing into this room. It’s Frank Patterson’s crooning “Danny Boy,” however, that gives it it’s unconventional edge, tapping into the lyrical, contemplative qualities beneath the film’s double crossings, betrayed loyalties and violence.
Inside Llewyn Davis — “The Death of Queen Jane”
There’s a sorrowful quality in Oscar Isaac’s eyes as he plays this traditional song. There’s a sense Llewyn knew, even before settling down to sing, that it was a lost cause. As the camera moves in, briefly flickering to Bud Grossman’s (F. Murray Abraham) apathetic face, the song builds into its crescendo with a final verse that parallels and shines a light on Llewyn’s own hardships over the course of the film. There are many musical performances in Inside Llewyn Davis, most of them great, but it’s “The Death of Queen Jane” that encapsulates the film’s theme of how serving art can be both unforgiving and brutal. The scene ends with Llewyn sitting alone, unwilling to compromise and harmonize (and therefore selling out) giving it his all even when the outcome will be less than favorable.
The Big Lebowski — “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)”
For people who don’t get The Big Lebowski, the dream sequence in which this song makes an appearance is the film’s biggest head-scratcher in a film full of them. Perfectly put together to showcase what Lebowski loves most (bowling, breasts, white Russians, etc.), the scene finds Jeff Bridges and Julianne Moore committed to playing the lunacy of the musical number. In the end, it feels almost like a film unto itself.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? — “Man of Constant Sorrow”
There are a number of versions of this song performed throughout O Brother, Where Art Thou?, but it’s the first time we see the three principals perform it as The Soggy Bottom Boys that sticks out. There’s the first thrill of wondering if that is actually George Clooney singing (it is not) as the escaped prisoners take a pit stop in a recording booth on their way to a larger journey. The Coens are perfectly content in using minimal movement in this scene; happy to let the power of the song provide the entertainment.
A Serious Man — “Somebody to Love”
Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” appears in A Serious Man at several important moments, and while not every Coen brothers film uses the circular narrative as Inside Llewyn Davis, they sometimes adopt a similar motif. A Serious Man both begins and ends with “Somebody to Love” playing in Danny’s ear. In the first scene, it seems nonsensical. At the finale, it seems to signify the beginning of bad things to come. The film is all about the lead character Larry’s (Michael Stuhlbarg) life being pulled apart at the seams and ends both with an ominous message from Larry’s doctor and a more obvious danger as a tornado wails into view while Danny’s teacher struggles to open a shelter. The film begins with a light moment and ends in dread, with the song taking on different meanings at either end.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? — “Down by the River”
Loosely adapted from The Odyssey, O Brother, Where Art Thou? often plays loose with its connection to the source material. There’s no mistaking Homer’s sirens’ inspiration on this scene, however, as the three leads — played with different levels of bumbling buffoonery by George Clooney, John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson — are drawn to the sound of singing when they come across a party dressed in white all being “cleansed” in the river. It’s not the biggest part in the film or the most consequential, but the episode allows for the story to settle for a moment, and contributes to its richly realized world.
Blood Simple — “It’s the Same Old Song”
The Coens’ directorial debut found them already in command of how to use music. The Four Tops’ “It’s the Same Old Song” is also given repeat plays, taking on a slightly different meaning in each context.
Inside Llewyn Davis — “Fare the Well”
Llewyn Davis’ last performance of the film brings the story full circle. His tender rendition of “Fare the Well” is at odds with the Llewyn Davis that we’ve grown to know while also being the most fitting send off for his character. After telling Bud Grossman that he doesn’t do harmonies, after working poorly with others and growing angry when a dinner party guest tries to harmonize with him, this forced solo act picks up his late partner’s harmony and kills it. It’s a strong performance and shot in a way that showcases just how in the moment the character is, eyes closed and in his element onstage, unaware that in a few moments a young Bob Dylan will take to the stage, and that the folk scene he dedicated much of his life to, for better and worse, is about to become a footnote in another musician’s legacy.