The Coen Brothers Love of Music

Coen Brothers

Hail, Caesar!, Joel and Ethan Coen’s new movie, might seem to be covering familiar ground — like 1991’s oozing nightmare Barton Fink, it’s a movie about old Hollywood. But the aging Technicolor decadence of Hail Caesar’s mid-’50s studio town is a different kind of old Hollywood than Fink‘s lean, humming ’40s sausage factory.

For one thing, it’s more musical. Channing Tatum put in “10 years of tap-dance training [crunched] into three months,” choreographer Christopher Gattelli says. It was all for the sake of six minutes of vigorous, onscreen, Navy-themed tap, accompanied by the “first time I’ve ever sung in front of anyone” — an epic lament for the lonely service man entitled “No Dames!” It’s a loving exaggeration, like a story about a relative — and now we really are on familiar ground.

The Coen brothers’ movies come flecked with period gems both real and imagined

The Coens are as in love with painstaking, half-parodic period settings as they are with inescapable existential dread. Hail, Caesar! and Barton Fink winkingly recreate two different Hollywoods; The Hudsucker Proxy updates and parodies the hyperactive fantasia of a ’30s screwball comedy; No Country for Old Men and True Grit imagine moral clashes in Western wastes circa 1980 and 1880.

Each of these movies — the eerily quiet No Country excepted — comes equipped with a score from committed collaborator Carter Burwell, whose elegant, melancholy style has scored films for Charlie Kaufman and David O. Russell; but they also come flecked with period gems both real and imagined.

O Brother, Where Art Thou stormed its way to a Grammy Award for Album of the Year, one of the Coen’s stranger accomplishments

On the real tip, there’s “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In),” the tripping ’67 earworm that scores the dreams of the smaller of The Big Lebowski’s two Lebowskis. Or the weird-old-America mixtape that scores the Coens’ golden-hued Great Depression farce O Brother, Where Art Thou — a collection of re-recorded folk and bluegrass songs presided over by T-Bone Burnett and spearheaded by “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow”; the song’s jaunty wail turns the movie’s trio of bumbling chain-gang escapees into a Depression-era radio sensation. The soundtrack became a hit large enough to detach from the film — the kind of thing you might own even if you hadn’t liked the movie, or hadn’t seen it — and stormed its way to a Grammy Award for Album of the Year, one of the Coen’s stranger accomplishments.

On the imaginary tip, there’s Autobahn, The Big Lebowski’s band of Kraftwerk-aping nihilists. Or “Please Mr. Kennedy (Don’t Send Me Into Outer Space),” the sound of someone cashing in on a scene that is a dense, delirious parody even more specific than ’30s Appalachian folk. In 2013’s Inside Llewyn Davis, Oscar Isaac’s earnest, ambitious folk singer joins two fellow strivers in early ‘60s Greenwich Village — Girls mainstay and latter-day Sith Lord Adam Driver; a perfectly glib Justin Timberlake — to record a viciously infectious folk-pop song that begs JFK not to make them astronauts. (This time, T-Bone Burnett was joined behind the boards by Marcus Mumford.) It’s a symbol of headline-chasing cynicism — a kind of ’60s clickbait — but it’s as lavished with love as anything else in the movie, realized as painstakingly as the bleak solo performances that are everything that matters to Isaac’s character.

The song’s perfect shallowness is yet another loving exaggeration. (The actual ’61 novelty song Burnett, Mumford and the Coens adapted into their “Please Mr. Kennedy” isn’t trying to avoid outer space, but Vietnam, a less whimsical fear.) Like “No Dames!” — a few sentences in the Coens’ Hail, Caesar! script that became three months of Channing Tatum’s life — the song is the kind of affectionate joke that happens to take an absurd amount of work to make. We’re really glad people make them.