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TRUE GRIT – Carter Burwell

December 21, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

truegritOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

True Grit is the latest film from Joel and Ethan Coen, the writing-directing-producing brothers who brought us such classic movies as Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother Where Art Thou and No Country For Old Men. True Grit is a new version of the well-respected 1968 novel by Charles Portis which chronicles the adventures of grizzled marshal Rooster Cogburn at the end of the Wild West era in the 1920s, who is hired by 14-year-old Mattie Ross to track down the drifter who murdered her father. John Wayne won his first and only Best Actor Oscar for his performance as Cogburn in the original 1969 version of the story. This time around, the cast features Jeff Bridges in the leading role, Matt Damon and Josh Brolin in supporting roles, and an original score from the Coens’ regular composer, Carter Burwell.

It’s been well documented over the years that, for whatever reason, I have never truly ‘got’ Carter Burwell’s music. The scores of his that I do like – Fargo, Gods and Monsters, Kinsey, Rob Roy, The Hi-Lo Country amongst them – tend to be more conventional than his others, with a stronger melodic content and a more emotional resonance. Unfortunately, and from my point of view, far too much Burwell’s music gets lost in a sea of bass, where the grinding underbelly of the orchestra comes across as the dominant sound, and the thematic content gets drowned out. It has to be something to do with the key in which Burwell often writes, or the chord progressions he uses – I can’t fully explain it – but the net result is generally the same: a lack of connection between me and the music.

True Grit is slightly different. For this score, Burwell took the unusual decision to base virtually all his thematic content on arrangements of traditional protestant hymns, most prominently the 1877 hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”, as well as “The Gloryland Way” and “What A Friend We Have in Jesus”. Burwell and the Coens discussed the idea of using 19th-century church music for the entire score as a reflection of the lead character’s religious convictions, “something that couldn’t be soothing or uplifting, but at the same time it couldn’t be outwardly depressing”, before eventually settling on the compromise between original score and hymn arrangements we hear on the final soundtrack.

Using these hymns as a frame of reference, the entire score can almost be seen as a reflection of Mattie’s religious convictions and her journey of sadness, revenge and redemption in the company of Cogburn to seek justice for her murdered father. The Everlasting Arms theme is almost a leitmotif for Mattie, while the Gloryland Way invokes Cogburn and his old-fashioned connection with a land swiftly disappearing under the tide of modern progress. It’s a clever idea which results in a soundtrack album which, superficially at least, is among the most enjoyable Burwell works in quite a while, but whether this can truly be called a “Carter Burwell score” is up for debate.

The orchestrations are very clearly inspired by the familiar Old West orchestrations from classic Hollywood, but are filtered through Burwell’s slightly darker and more introspective personality, again with the familiar chord progressions and bass-heavy instrumental clusters he has used throughout his career. Burwell isn’t a composer given to large-scale statements of orchestral beauty, and he doesn’t change his modus operandi very much here, although like The Hi-Lo Country before it, he does allow his music to present brief reflections of majestic Western landscapes which really open up the score.

The Everlasting Arms melody forms the core of the majority of cues. The opening cue, “The Wicked Flee”, is a straightforward performance of the theme on a solo piano that gradually picks up a warmer and broader orchestral accompaniment in “Father’s Gun”. In “Little Blackie” it is performed on an upright honky-tonk style piano with a cowboy flavor, while in “Your Headstrong Ways” it features a playful clarinet refrain and a vaguely mischievous sensibility, clearly alluding to Mattie’s youth and naïve persistence.

In “We Don’t Need Him Do We?” the theme takes on a darker aspect, and in “The Hanging Man” the clarinet returns, although this time the instrument clearly alludes to something a little more somber and thoughtful. Later, “La Boeuf Takes Leave” is almost romantic in the way the theme is softly arranged for tender strings, gentle woodwinds and a poignant piano, while “One Against Four” contains a whole host of unexpectedly heroic trumpet fanfares based on the Everlasting Arms motif which gradually give way to a stark, bitter deconstructed piano variation. “Ride to Death” takes the Everlasting Arms theme and turns it into a bittersweet elegy which is quite lovely, while in the conclusive “The Grave” the Everlasting Arms theme returns to its more stripped-down roots with a solemn solo piano performance to bring the album to a close.

The other main melody – the Gloryland Way theme – forms the core of “A Great Adventure” and the excellent “River Crossing”, in which Burwell allows the theme to emerge into a large-scale full-orchestral performance of which Elmer Bernstein might have been proud. “River Crossing” especially features some uncharacteristically bold string rhythms under the melody which are quite superb. This theme reoccurs just once again in the score, in “I Will Carry You”, where it is re-orchestrated for oboe, guitar and strings, and as such takes on a much more serious feeling. The other hymn to feature in the score, What a Friend We Have in Jesus, appears just once, performed on solo piano in the penultimate cue, “A Quarter Century”.

There are only one or two extended pieces of music that contain virtually none of the score’s hymn-based thematic content. The longest of these, “A Turkey Shoot”, is a nervous pseudo-action piece filled with rattling wooden percussion, rumbling timpanis and string dissonances that create a great deal of tension and mystery. Similarly, “Taken Hostage” has a stirring militaristic snare-drum lick under a more strident brass section that is quite exciting in comparison to the rest of the score.

One has to applaud Burwell and the Coens for taking this rather unique approach to their score, and as I mentioned before the album listening experience of this score is certainly one of the more entertaining records Burwell has put out for quite some time, but you still have to remember that this is not really a ‘Carter Burwell score’. For better or worse, it’s an album of hymns arranged for a orchestra with an emphasis on the musical conventions of the Old West, and it is for this reason that the score fell foul of the Academy’s rules about scores being based on pre-existing music, and was declared ineligible for the 2010 Oscars. If you don’t mind the fact that none of the main themes are Burwell’s own creations, then True Grit might be a worthwhile purchase, but bear in mind that the score is still very low-key in its style and understated in its thematic statements, and as such is unlikely to appeal to those who don’t appreciate a great deal of subtlety in their music.

Rating: ***

Buy the True Grit soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • The Wicked Flee (2:34)
  • Father’s Gun (2:57)
  • Little Blackie (1:05)
  • Your Headstrong Ways (1:22)
  • A Great Adventure (1:56)
  • River Crossing (1:33)
  • We Don’t Need Him Do We? (0:30)
  • The Hanging Man (0:55)
  • A Methodist and a Son of a Bitch (0:49)
  • Talking to Horses (1:20)
  • A Turkey Shoot (3:00)
  • Talk About Suffering (0:35)
  • La Boeuf Takes Leave (2:44)
  • Taken Hostage (2:00)
  • One Against Four (1:37)
  • The Snake Pit (3:15)
  • Ride to Death (2:28)
  • I Will Carry You (1:58)
  • A Quarter Century (1:23)
  • The Grave (0:59)

Running Time: 35 minutes 00 seconds

Nonesuch Records 526752 (2010)

Music composed and conducted by Carter Burwell. Orchestrations by Sonny Kompanek and Carter Burwell. Recorded and mixed by Mike Farrow. Edited by Todd Kasow. Album produced by Carter Burwell.

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  1. chris
    January 23, 2011 at 3:07 am

    Yes excellent review but it makes me feel listening again to Elmer Bernstein’s music for this unforgettable masterwork John Wayne’s True Grit. I’m really fed up with all those remakes !

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