Home > Reviews > BARTON FINK – Carter Burwell

BARTON FINK – Carter Burwell

THROWBACK THIRTY

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Perhaps the best film ever made about writer’s block, Barton Fink is a nearly unclassifiable combination of drama, comedy, horror, romance, and existential philosophy, written and directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen. John Turturro plays the eponymous Fink, a New York playwright who moves to Los Angeles in the early 1940s, having been offered a job writing for the movies. Unable to find inspiration for his screenplay, he bonds with Charlie Meadows (John Goodman), an amiable salesman who lives next door to him in his rundown apartment building, and then tries to solicit advice from various writers and directors around Hollywood. However, an unexpected and shocking murder sends Fink into a spiral of surrealism, chaos, and death, as he tries to finish his debut script despite his world collapsing around him. The film co-stars Michael Lerner, Judy Davis, and John Mahoney among others, and was the darling of the 1991 Cannes Film Festival, eventually winning the coveted Palme d’Or; unfortunately, it was a box office disaster, its unusual genre and offbeat characters failing to connect with mainstream audiences in any meaningful way.

Barton Fink was the fourth collaboration between the Coen Brothers and composer Carter Burwell, following Blood Simple in 1984, Raising Arizona in 1987, and Miller’s Crossing in 1990. Originally, the plan was for the film to feature nothing more than Skip Lievsay’s sound effects – no music at all – but eventually Burwell convinced the Coens that there was an important aspect to Barton’s character that could be communicated with music, especially Barton’s immaturity, and his childlike naivete. In the end, much of the score was communicated in tandem between Burwell and Lievsay, who would often intentionally try to complement each other. In an article on his website, Burwell explains how “Skip might have a mosquito pestering Barton in his hotel room while I’d play dark mystery with bass trombones. Or I’d have a high violin line, referencing the mosquito, while Skip would play low submarine groans coming from the hotel.” It’s an interesting exercise in sound and music manipulation which cleverly depicts the chaos and impending madness of Barton’s world.

Burwell’s sparse score is impressive in how it successfully captures Barton’s fragile mental state with the most understated music possible. It has a fairly small ensemble comprising an orchestra augmented with piano and harpsichord, and the thematic content is fairly light, but the textures are really evocative. As a review in Indiewire put it; “Burwell’s score almost immediately puts the audience at unease, packing the aural walls not only with strings, but with murmurs, phone calls, ringing bells, screams, guttural cries, humming, peeling wallpaper, and just about everything but silence to create the feeling of a world that’s slowly falling apart.” This latter aspect comes of course by way of Lievsay’s sound effects, some of which are incorporated into the soundtrack album too.

The opening cue, “Fade In,” sets the tone for the entire score, through a series of quietly downbeat string textures underpinned with tinkling pianos, harpsichords, and almost imperceptible touches from a glockenspiel. “Big Shoes” feels a little more dramatic through its use of clanging bells, repeating the rhythms from the opening track, and eventually melting into a gentle set of murmuring string figures, and a more dramatically intense finale for dark brasses and rumbling timpani. The “Love Theme from Barton Fink” continues in much the same vein, albeit with a slightly broader orchestral sound with more emphasis on brass, until it all gives way to the first piece of Skip Lievsay sound design. The subsequent “Barton In Shock” has a wryly comical tone that comes from the interplay between bowed and plucked strings – you can almost see John Turturro’s face, contorted in bemused confusion – while the hesitant, oddly deliberate pacing seems intentionally designed to make the listener feel uneasily off-kilter.

The “Typing Montage” again increases the scope of the instrumental palette by shifting the melodic line to piano and harpsichord, and again increasing the brass content, while the prominent plucked basses have a tone that feels like a deconstructed take on Bach’s “Air on the G String”. “The Box” – which is, of course, an important mysterious maguffin in the story, relating to both Barton’s neighbor Meadows and the cure for his writer’s block – uses slightly more agitated, elongated string chords with a tragic countenance, before eventually descending into the second of Skip Lievsay’s chaotic sound design sequences. “Barton In Flames” is the dramatic conclusion to the story, wherein the protagonist’s apartment (and all evidence of his supposed crimes) is consumed by fire, to the sound of Burwell’s siren-like strings and darkly-hued brass. The conclusive “Fade Out – The End” returns to the stylistics heard in the opening cue, ending the core on a thoughtful and enigmatic note.

The soundtrack for Barton Fink was not released on CD at the time the film was released; eventually, just over 15 minutes of it was released as part of a 2-for-1 release with the score from another Coen Brothers film, Fargo, produced by TVT Records in 1996. The album is certainly worth seeking out – Fargo is one of Burwell’s all-time best – but Barton Fink should not be overlooked either. It’s a small, intimate, introspective score, which leaves an interestingly downbeat aftertaste, and is a clever musical depiction of a man whose life is falling apart. I like it a lot, but I can’t quite put my finger on why. Maybe this writer’s block business is more pervasive than I thought…

Buy the Barton Fink soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Fade In (1:08)
  • Big Shoes (1:33)
  • Love Theme from Barton Fink (1:21)
  • Barton in Shock (1:58)
  • Typing Montage (2:11)
  • The Box (3:06)
  • Barton in Flames (0:57)
  • Fade Out – The End (3:37)

Running Time: 15 minutes 50 seconds

TVT Records SMMCD-614 (1991/1996)

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

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