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10 March 2016

The Coen brothers on the music that scores their films

The brilliance of Saturday Night at the Movies on Classic FM is that it gets people sick to death of talking about movies to talk about movies - by focussing on the music.

By Antonia Quirke

To the Coen brothers talking about the score of their new film, Hail, Caesar!, with the presenter Andrew Collins (5 March, 5pm). They mention a symphony of influences, from the Red Army Choir to Scandinavian folk songs. Like all of their movies, Hail, Caesar! is set in a semi-fictional reality, a slightly spoofy, non-existent land of narrative, but the music (mostly by their regular collaborator Carter Burwell) takes itself seriously. The score is as vivid as the theme for Spartacus – “only with extra pomposity”, said Ethan Coen, following up with a giggle, leaning back on what was surely a fat sofa.

The original interview had evidently not happened in a studio – it was doubtless on some grim junket to a smart hotel – but this is the simple brilliance of the show: how to get people who are sick to death of talking about movies to talk about movies? Ask them about movie music instead! When the ever-agile Collins (in the presenter’s seat for a year) spoke in November to the sepulchral Christoph Waltz during the junket for Spectre, the actor’s wholly unexpected enthusiasm for Bond music had him going into unstoppable detail about the synchronisation between Thomas Newman’s score and his own first appearance as Blofeld at the conference table, his face in shadow; how the sound of a gong was perfectly synced with our first tantalising glimpse of him, followed by silence.

Although slightly less intense, the Coens sounded similarly happy to be there. What might have been stern came over as wry and what might have been dry as warm – the editing was ingenious. When Joel Coen spoke about using Beethoven in The Man Who Wasn’t There, we stopped for the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata (in its entirety – the show stretched out beautifully to two hours), then came back to Coen explaining, “On the other hand, with True Grit, where we said we’d like the music to be based on church hymns, we were basically saying it needs a Protestant score.”

It was as though he had been talking under the music all along, ranging widely over genres and memories, with much more still to say, and all of it with the Coen brothers’ irresistible, low-level hum of an intelligent sense of humour at work.

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This article appears in the 09 Mar 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Psycho