American Routes Shortcuts: The Coen Brothers

Aug 16, 2019

The Coen Brothers
Credit American Routes

Words like “quirky,” “ironic,” “funny,” and “violent” describe the films of the Coen Brothers. From their first film Blood Simple in 1984 to True Grit in 2010, and then Inside Llewyn Davis and 2018s Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Joel and Ethan Coen have defied expectations, twisted genres, and reworked classic story lines around characters, like the Dude.


Ethan Coen: When we were kids growing up, we listened to what kids listened to in this mid-60s, late 60’s, top 40 music, you know. I was big on Steppenwolf. 

NS: “Magic Carpet Ride. 

EC: Yeah. 

NS: Well let me ask you this, did you hear cantors and the sound of the sacred traditions of Judaism as well? 

EC: Well we heard it all in the synagogue but I don’t think either of us thought of it as music. It was part of an enforced religious observance. 

NS: Well the reason I ask is that in A Serious Man, the juxtaposition between a certain amount of European tradition in the sense of the rituals to the Jefferson Airplane, “Somebody to Love,” that strikes me as a profound juxtaposition in the soundtrack. 

EC: Well for our purposes just using it in the movie, it really sets the period loud and clear. 

Joel Coen: Their music has a particular vibe which seemed right for the kind of feeling or vibe that we wanted the movie to feel like in terms of its period specificity, you know what I mean? 

EC: Its incongruity next to the cantorial music really appealed to us. That’s really white gentile rock and roll in a way that we like. 

[The Big Lebowski soundbite]

NS: In The Big Lebowski, you rely on T Bone Burnett to help you pick music, and the music is really a big piece or how you create the mood, how you advance the story. What was your thinking when you actually went to a film like that and really wanted all these different kinds of popular tunes, jazz, and rock and roll, and even some avant-garde in there?

JC: Yeah we knew we wanted a real sort of eclectic– we wanted every character to have a kind of signature and different kind of sound, and we wanted it all to be music not of the period, all kind of throwbacky in a way. We had a few ideas and T Bone had lots of ideas, and we just kind of sifted through them. 

NS: You two guys sound pretty good together as a team, obviously brothers talk a lot in life and riff off of one another, have you ever thought of just doing comedy together? 

EC: Nobody would pay to hear that. 

JC: Somebody actually had just pointed out that comedy duos, the tradition is they fight, they break up, and then twenty years later, they have a tearful reunion onstage. So I think wanting to avoid that whole drama, we’re not going to become a comedy duo. 

NS: Oh well that’s good. 

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