Ethan Coen is quick to point out the emblematic difference between the Jewish liturgical music in his and brother Joel Coen’s last movie, A Serious Man, and the hymns in the Coen Brothers’ remake of True Grit, which opens nationally Dec. 22.
“It’s kind of funny,” he says following True Grit‘s New York premiere last week. “The music crystallizes the whole thing: We made a movie about Jews, so we decided to make a movie about a Protestant!”
He’s referring to 14-year-old Mattie Ross (played to remarkable effect in the new True Grit by newcomer Hailee Steinfeld), whose father has been shot in cold blood by the coward Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). The Coens’ version of the classic western, which stars Jeff Bridges in the drunken U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn role made famous in the Oscar-winning performance of John Wayne in the 1969 film adaptation of the the 1968 Charles Portis novel, hews closer to the book in centering on the Presbyterian-Protestant ethic of central character Ross as opposed to the first film’s focus on Cogburn.
“When we started cutting it we starting thinking about the music amplifying the main character’s point-of-view,” continues Coen. “Mattie is even more of a schoolmarm in the book–such an old Protestant at the age of 14, which is why the book is so funny.”
So the Coens, together with composer and frequent Coen music collaborator Carter Burwell (Blood Simple, Barton Fink, Burn After Reading, Fargo, The Hudsucker Proxy, Intolerable Cruelty, The Man Who Wasn’t There, Miller’s Crossing), decided on a score rooted in 19th Century Protestant hymns–“the songs,” Burwell writes in the CD notes to the soundtrack album being released Tuesday on Nonesuch, that “Mattie would sing if she had time for such frivolity.”
The model was “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” composed in 1888 by Anthony J. Showalter, an elder of the First Presbyterian Church in Dalton, Georgia. Co-written with Elisha A. Hoffman, the hymn, notes Coen, was memorably sung by Robert Mitchum’s psycho killer character and Lillian Gish’s stout foster mother in the classic 1955 thriller The Night Of The Hunter.
“It was familiar to us from that–and we thought it might be interesting and adaptable for a western,” notes Coen. “Carter was immediately taken with the idea, but rightly worried that one hymn might get tiresome after a while with too much use. We used it as a temp track until it became clear we were maxing out on it thematically, so he started listening to other material.”
Besides “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” which is also sung by Iris DeMent during the closing credits (her version is included as a bonus cut on digital versions of the soundtrack album), Burwell’s score contains excerpts of the hymns “Hold to God’s Unchanging Hand,” “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” “The Glory-Land Way” and “Talk About Suffering” (Coen already knew “Talk About Suffering” from an a cappella Doc Watson recording).
Burwell alternated between solo piano, “which underlies the churchy feeling,” and “full thrashing orchestration,” notes Coen.
“Again, he was rightly worried about wearing out the feeling of the solo church piano,” he says. “So we ended up mixing up the instrumentation as well. Carter’s just very canny in scoring a picture.”
Coen adds that other period music was found and incorporated, including “Greer Country Bachelor,” a vintage song sung in the film by Bridges–but hardly in the manner of his Oscar-winning role as a country music star in last year’s Crazy Heart.
“He’s not playing a musician in this!” says Coen, distinguishing Bridges gruff, tuneless singing in True Grit while making it clear, however, that he required little direction when it came to his singing parts.
“Believe me! Jeff knows where the character is,” says Coen.
Incidentally, the trailer for True Grit uses Johnny Cash’s version of the folk song “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” on the soundtrack. Meanwhile, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” also appears on the Grammy-nominated Onward And Upward by Luther Dickinson & The Sons of Mudby (Memphis International), a gospel/spiritual set recorded by North Mississippi Allstars’ Dickinson three days after the death of his legendary musician/producer father Jim Dickinson.
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