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True Grit
  • Composed by Carter Burwell
  • Nonesuch Records 526752 / 2010 / 36:53

The Coen Brothers’ latest is a “remake” of True Grit (actually a fresh adaptation of the book, nothing to do with the earlier film) with Jeff Bridges taking on the role of Rooster Cogburn, made so famous by John Wayne.  With strong reviews and a favourable response for the public, many have commented that this is the duo’s “straightest” film, an attempt at making a great western without any of the quirky touches which usually come with their films.  In any case, it seems they have another winner on their hands.  

There’s no surprise who is attached to write the score, of course.  Carter Burwell has had a number of successes elsewhere but will of course forever be known as “the Coen’s composer.”  There is a certain irony to this – while he has worked on all their films, and music plays a large role in most, not since 1996’s Fargo has the score been anywhere near the forefront.  For a classical western, of course music must have a large role to play – once again, little of it is actually Burwell’s composition, but he certainly played a very full role in crafting it – and it makes for his most satisfying album since, probably, Fargo.

Carter Burwell

The musical approach to the film was to base the score on old Protestant hymns and (I believe) all the thematic content here is derived from various hymns, chiefly “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” (and the download version of the album concludes with a beautiful vocal version, sung by Iris DeMent) but several others besides.  It’s what Burwell does with the tunes that is so wonderful – whether through a beautiful piano arrangement or improbably adapted for fully-orchestral action music, he turns these melodies into first-rate film music.  Much of the score is simply outstandingly beautiful, a reminder that great tunes with thoughtful arrangements can be such a strong device in film music.

Burwell’s tendency for introspection does dominate (with an unusually strong feeling of emotion running through it all), but there are moments when he lets things go, such as in the wonderful “One Against Four”, a brief but highly-memorable action track.  Some of the score is in fact entirely Burwell’s – another action piece, “Taken Hostage”, an example of this.  Everything blends together so well, the album plays so beautifully, this is without question one of my favourites of the year.  It’s vintage, old-school western music, with a unique twist – you’re not going to get it confused with Elmer Bernstein, that’s for sure, but it does have a similar Copland influence at times.  A delight.  ****

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  1. S. Porath (Reply) on Sunday 26 December, 2010 at 09:11

    His most satisfying album since Fargo? What about In Bruges or Conspiracy Theory? I’d probably take Where The WIld Things Are and Intolerable Cruelty over Fargo as well. I personally don’t think it makes for a particularly good album, good as it is in the film.