Tuesday, 19 April 2011


I bought the soundtrack album to this movie; only the second soundtrack album I ever bought in my life. The first was back in the 60's and was The Sound Of Music.  The music in this film is simply brilliant and most of it from genres I'm generally not keen on. In particular the three-part harmony of Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch on the lullaby Didn't Leave Nobody But The Baby is one of the most beautiful pieces of music I've ever heard. The scene in which it appears, mimed by the three graceful slow-moving sirens as they seduce our three weary heroes, is delicate, evocative and almost mythic in tone. It's worth seeing the film for that very scene alone. Or it would be if it's wasn't packed with memorable set-pieces, many of them based around songs. 
Another rivetting scene is set at night and lit by torches as large number of Klansmen march to stomping rhythm as their Great Knobhead (or Dragon) bellows the traditional Oh Death (Won't Ya Please Pass By Me Another Year). The Great Knobhead is revealed as a candidate for governor whose campaign is based on his working for the ordinary man -as long as he's white, anglo-saxon, and protestant and not black, Jewish, or Catholic.

I love this film. Although episodic in structure, its spine is Homer's Odyssey which is about a hero (Ulysses) trying to get home to his wife and his struggle to do so. Initially this doesn't appear to be the case as Everett Ulysses McGill (Clooney) convinces the two men he's chained to on the chain gang to escape with him because he has buried a stolen 1.2 million dollars  near shack in a valley about to be flooded. Clooney's character is wonderful: vain and not as intelligent as thinks albeit clever enough to con his two friends Pete (John Turturro) and Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) whose combined i.q. might reach double digits. Having escaped from the chain gang, they embark on a series of picaresque adventure across Mississipi.

The colour is bleached and at the very beginning the film is black and white, only fading gradually as the camera pans to the chain gang, who are chanting a work song, does the colour fade in.

In the course of their adventures, our heroes meet up with George 'Babyface' Nelson, a manic-depressive with a tommy-gun and a love of robbing banks, a blues singer, Tommy Johnson* (Chris Thomas King, who is a blues singer by trade) who claims he has just sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads (a la Robert Johnson) and with whom they pal up with for a while and together record a song at a radio station in the middle of nowhere. They meet the sirens (see above) and rescue Johnson from a lynching by the Ku Klux Klan (ditto) where the Cyclops (John Goodman), who robbed them earlier, get his due desserts. And there is so much more.

This is a film of so many delights it's almost too rich. As I've said already, the soundtrack, specifically the songs, which are woven perfectly into the story are an unalloyed feast for the ears. It's also by far the Coens funniest film -just check out the scene where Delmar is convinced that the Sirens have turned Pete into a toad (it emerges from his neatly laid out clothes by a river bank). Nelson, who plays the dim-witted Delmar, is the only one of the three leads who actually sings in the film. With a degree in the Classics, he was the only one of the cast and crew (if you believe the Coens' disclaimer) who had actually read The Odyssey. But just because it's primarily a comedy doesn't mean it lacks its serious moments such as the Ku Klux Klan sequence and when a police car crashes into a (thankfully cgi) cow while chasing Babyface Nelson, which isn't funny at all.

Is this the Coens' best film in my opinion? You'll have to wait until later on in the week to find out when I conclude with an overview.

Random Notes.

*Tommy Johnson is an odd name to chose for a fictional Blues singer even if he was modeled on Robert Johnson (which, the crossroads story apart, I'm not convinced by) because there really was a Blues singer called Tommy Johnson who was active at the time and one of his most famous songs became the model for Canned Heat's On The Road Again.

This was going to be the last Coens' movie to be reviewed. I've only missed one (I'm deliberately excluding their scripted by, but directed by Sam Raimi, Crimewave and anything else they didn't create together) which is The Ladykillers, their transformed remake of the Alec Guinness original, on the grounds that pretty much every review of it I've read said it's total shite so I don't feel like spending money on it. And then there came one of those off coincidences. Gary, a handyman who does odd jobs for us, was in the house this afternoon, saw my book about the Coens and commented favourably on it. Turns out he's a big fan. He also told me that BBC1 was showing The Ladykillers in the next day or two. It's tomorrow so I'll record it. Coincidence? Certainly. But I'll still have to watch it. I mean, it's different watching it for free than paying for the privilege of being shafted by the Coens.

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