RAISING ARIZONA – Carter Burwell
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
Raising Arizona is the second film in the career of writer-director brothers Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, their sophomore feature film after Blood Simple in 1984. It’s a comedy crime caper starring Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter as Hi and Ed McDunnough, an ex-con and an ex-cop who meet, fall in love, marry, and desperately long for a child of their own. However, when it is discovered that Hi is unable to have children, they decide to steal one of the ‘Arizona Quints,’ a set of five babies born to locally famous furniture magnate Nathan Arizona. Hi and Ed, wanting to raise their child in as normal an environment as possible, try to keep their crime a secret, but a parade of co-workers, ex-cons, and bounty hunters contrive to make their lives impossible. The film, which also stars John Goodman, William Forsythe, Trey Wilson, and Frances McDormand, has become something of a cult hit over the years, and is fondly regarded as being the film which introduced many of the Coens’s idiosyncratic filmmaking touches, although personally I don’t like the film at all – it’s just too ‘weird’ for my taste.
The score for Raising Arizona was by the then 32-year-old Carter Burwell. Like the Coens, Burwell was still very inexperienced when it came to film music; Raising Arizona was just his third film score, after Blood Simple, and Psycho III in 1986. In fact, at the time the Coens were shooting Raising Arizona, Burwell was still holding down a regular day job at the New York Institute of Technology, where he worked as a computer modeler, animator, and digital sound researcher. He had long dabbled in music on the side, performing in New York with several bands, and composing the music for a dance piece, RAB, which premiered at the Avignon Festival and toured worldwide with The Harmonic Choir, an experimental vocal group which specialized in overtone singing. He had been introduced to the Coens in 1984 by a mutual friend, sound editor Skip Lievsay, but it was not until after Raising Arizona was released that Burwell made the switch to writing music full-time.
Burwell’s interest in experimental vocal music was clearly influential in determining the sound of Raising Arizona, which is a wholly peculiar combination of synths, banjo, guitar, Jew’s harp, ukulele, percussion, yodeling, and whistling. Clearly Burwell was trying to enhance the absurdity of the project, as well as to subtly reinforce the film’s Western setting, but the constant weirdness of the entire score will drive some listeners bonkers before the first couple of cues are over. The main thing I do like about Raising Arizona is how you can hear the first appearance of some of the musical quirks Burwell would remain faithful to throughout the rest of his career. In the opening cue, “Introduction – A Hole in the Ground,” you can clearly pick out Burwell’s penchant for dark, minor key chord progressions, buried deep underneath the clattering metallic samples, guitars, and faraway choir.
The main identity of the score first appears in the second cue, “Way Out There (Main Title),” where after thirty seconds or so of build up for guitars, bells, electronic pulses, and the dark choir, the main theme emerges: a combination of Ben Freed’s frantic, rapid banjo playing, Mieczyslaw Litwinski’s Alessandro Alessandrini-esque whistling, and John Crowder’s iconic Hank Williams-style yodeling. The Yodeling theme returns in “Raising Ukeleles,” a more upbeat and sunny piece which sees Crowder’s voice accompanied by ukeleles, whistling, kazoos, and a Hawaiian-style sampled percussive beat. Later, in “Shopping Arizona,” the Yodeling theme is re-imagined as a perky piece for a cheap-sounding keyboard beat and quirky sound effects, but without vocals. It returns for a final time during the second half of the conclusive “Return to the Nursery,” where banjos and kazoos accompany the yodeling theme with something approaching emotional catharsis.
Elsewhere, “The Letter” has a more traditional sound, with a vaguely romantic and hopeful synth and piano melody that is attractive, albeit desperately under-developed. The Letter theme appears again in the first part of the final cue, “Return to the Nursery,” where the wistful childlike chimes provide a glimpse of the idyllic life that Hi and Ed had always dreamed of.
The rest of the score comprises a series of set pieces, each with their own unique sound. “He Was Horrible” features a dramatic theme for synths and guitar, overlaid by the sampled choir, which becomes increasingly more distorted as the cue progresses. “Just Business” is simply bizarre, an experimental combination of rumbling percussion, clattering metallic sounds, assorted groaning, and broken woodwind instruments mimicking the death cries of a horse, which has to be heard to be believed. “Hail Lenny” is more rhythmic and aggressive, with guitars, synths, and an increasingly prominent chorus, overdubbed with vaguely Latin-sounding sampled pan-pipes. “Dream of the Future” features a bed of blissful synth textures, and is bubbly and optimistic, but just a little bit twee, and again features the faraway sampled choir.
The soundtrack to Raising Arizona was released by Varese Sarabande in 1987 as part of the original VCD series by producers Richard Kraft and Tom Null, paired with 20 minutes of music from Burwell’s 1984 Coen Brothers score Blood Simple. Oddly, it has never been re-released on its own in any form, despite the proliferation of songs on the soundtrack which could easily pad out the score into a collectible album for fans of the film. As such, the twofer album is currently the only release available, but astonishingly it’s still in print for fairly decent prices, as well as being downloadable from Amazon and iTunes.
As an introduction to the very, very early work of Carter Burwell, Raising Arizona is a fascinating curio, but the unabashed weirdness of the entire thing may result in fans of his more serious scores wondering what the hell they are listening to. Certainly, on the evidence of this score, one would never anticipate that Burwell would go on to write such sophisticated scores as Rob Roy, Fargo, Conspiracy Theory, Gods and Monsters, and Carol. Nevertheless, there is a certain carefree charm about the whole experience, and anyone who loves yodeling, whistling, and banjos is in for an extra-special treat.
Buy the Raising Arizona soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Introduction – A Hole in the Ground (0:38)
- Way Out There (Main Title) (1:55)
- He Was Horrible (1:30)
- Just Business (1:17)
- The Letter (2:27)
- Hail Lenny (2:18)
- Raising Ukeleles (3:41)
- Dream of the Future (2:31)
- Shopping Arizona (2:46)
- Return to the Nursery (1:35)
Running Time: 30 minutes 36 seconds
Varese Sarabande VCD-47284 (1987)
Music composed and arranged by Carter Burwell. Featured musical soloists Ben Freed, Mieczyslaw Litwinski, Geoffrey Gordon, Skip La Plante, Alan Drogin, Steven Swartz and Don Peyton. Special vocal performances by John Crowder. Recorded and mixed by Sebastian Niessen. Album produced by Carter Burwell, Richard Kraft and Tom Null.