So many moments stick out when considering the Coen brothers’ use of music. To be sure, composer/friend Carter Burwell and “music archivist” T Bone Burnett deserve a great deal of that credit. Together, the group form a team with a knack for pairing music with visual moments. Take, for example, the epic strands of Khachaturian’s “Sabre Dance” as slow-motion footage of a boy testing the first hula hoop (“You know, for kids”). Or, better yet, Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” mirroring the somber, wandering man who wasn’t there, or Burwell’s thumping, claustrophobic percussion as the world zooms into smaller and more complex pieces at the opening of Burn After Reading.
But, no Coen film could possibly top The Big Lebowski in that regard, possibly due to the sheer volume of music used. The film’s opening sequence unveils so many important themes, all hinged on the music. The mysterious Stranger describes Los Angeles and The Dude, his deep, Western voice and folksy manner of speech echoed by the strains of Bob Nolan’s “Tumbling Tumbleweeds”. This is contrasted by images of flashing neon and Jeff Bridges wandering through the fluorescent hell that is a late-night, small-town supermarket. But, the song’s not just there to provide an extra shot of nostalgia for the good ol’ west; instead it (and the tumbleweed) echo the aimlessness, the out-of-place nature that The Dude inhabits, rolling around where the wind takes him.
The good-times loll of Bob Dylan’s “The Man In Me” backs a montage of average Joes and Janes bowling. Dylan’s lyrics about a woman being all a man needs to do all of his hard work are appropriated to the Dude’s zen-need for the sport of kings. I’ll admit that I used to be in a bowling league, but, regardless, there seems to be some real joy. The diversity of people involved (fat, thin, black, white, male, female) and the unity and sequence of images is peaceful, smile-inducing. Later, in the bowling alley, the Latin strings of the Gipsy Kings’ version of “Hotel California” kick in just as the vaguely Latin Jesus (hilariously portrayed by John Turturro) celebrates a strike.
I haven’t even gotten to Creedence! The Dude loves his CCR, so their tapes make prominent appearances in the film. The serious, growling of “Run Through the Jungle” backs Duder and Walter’s riotous failure of a switcheroo. All of the down-home fun of “Lookin’ Out My Back Door” runs through the tape deck as His Dudeness smokes, drinks and crashes his car. But, one can’t have CCR without what, as the film seems to suggest, is the anti-CCR: The Eagles. Sure, the Spanish-language cover of “Hotel California” has a nice Latin flair to back Jesus, but he’s the villain. And, in their own way, the Eagles are villains here too. After getting released from a jail, El Duderino takes a cab ride with an Eagles fan. When he complains about the music, the Dude finds himself out on the street. What are the Eagles, then, compared to CCR: Certainly they’re lighter, easier listening. Take a listen to “Peaceful, Easy Feeling” and you’ll see what I mean.
Yma Sumac’s epic, eerie “Ataypura” sets the scene as the wild, depraved party at evil Jackie Treehorn’s beach house unravels. The most noted music moment may be the use of Kenny Rogers & The First Edition’s “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)”. The Dude’s been drugged, and he goes into a loopy, wacky dream, dancing and bowling and looking up women’s skirts. The funky twangs of guitar and slinky bass are perfectly matched to the intricately choreographed dream sequence. The nihilists have their own electronica theme as they goofily prance around, threatening violence while shouting about how they believe in nothing.
Every piece of music in this film (and there are a ton) is meant to advance a character, a theme, or a message. Nothing is incidental, no matter how backgrounded. Yet, it doesn’t hit you over the head and it doesn’t detract from the humor or joy inherent in the experience.