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A SERIOUS MAN – Carter Burwell

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

A wry black comedy from the critically acclaimed Coen brothers, Ethan and Joel, and set in 1967, A Serious Man tells the story of an ordinary Midwestern man named Larry Gopnik, who watches helplessly as his life unravels around him: his wife Judith has left him for one of his colleagues, his feckless brother Arthur is sleeping on his couch, his son Danny is flunking out of school, one of his students is blackmailing him, and his pretty neighbor is not helping matters by continually sunbathing in the nude. It’s a typically quirky look at life, relationships, and the extraordinary situations in which everyday folks sometimes find themselves, and has been heavily tipped to be a major player at the 2009 Oscars, with lead actors Michael Stuhlbarg, Richard Kind, Sari Lennick and Fred Melamed all receiving a great deal of critical acclaim.

Returning for his 14th career collaboration with the Coen Brothers is composer Carter Burwell, who responded to the Coen’s film with one of his traditionally sparse and understated works. Written for a small chamber orchestra with emphasis on harp and strings, Burwell’s music is quiet, intimate, small-scale, but surprisingly tender, despite containing all the usual bass-heavy stylistics one has come to associate with his work over the years. The harp is actually the cornerstone of the score, plucking away and wandering aimlessly through the score, much like Gopnik wanders aimlessly through his life.

Cues such as the opening “A Marvel”, “Green Lawns”, “Thirst”, “The Roof”, “The Mentaculus” and the conclusive “A Serious Man” pit the harp against various orchestral textures – strings here, pianos there – in an intentionally dull reflection of 1960s suburbia. It’s not especially interesting, because it’s not meant to be, but it also makes the CD soundtrack a little bit of a chore to listen to; only in the extended “A Serious Man” does Burwell allow his theme to develop any sense of scale or emotional content beyond the norm.

Later, cues such as “Knock Knock”, “Uncertainty” are brief, moody atmosphere pieces, while pieces like “Good Riddance/The Canal” have a sense of urban decay through the increased use of electric guitars and a soft-rock attitude. A couple of pretty decent Jefferson Airplane songs add to the period setting, but it’s all too understated to really leave any kind of lasting impression; as such, A Serious Man will probably only appeal to fans of Burwell’s work, or of the movie itself.

Rating: **½

Track Listing:

  • A Marvel (1:16)
  • Knock Knock (0:52)
  • Green Lawns (0:51)
  • Good Riddance/The Canal (2:46)
  • Somebody to Love (performed by Jefferson Airplane) (2:58)
  • Blue Skies (0:39)
  • Rabbi Sting 1 (0:24)
  • Thirst (0:48)
  • Uncertainly (0:52)
  • The Roof (1:42)
  • Comin’ Back to Me (performed by Jefferson Airplane) (5:16)
  • Rabbi Sting 2 (0:18)
  • Thinking (0:31)
  • The Mentaculus (1:21)
  • Seriously (0:20)
  • Canada (2:05)
  • Today (performed by Jefferson Airplane) (3:02)
  • Sanctum (1:05)
  • A Serious Man (2:45)
  • Dem Milner’s Trern (performed by Sidor Belarsky) (3:45)

Running Time: 33 minutes 36 seconds

Lakeshore Records LKS-34111 (2009)

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