Fargo Rating:
Barton Fink Rating:

Original Review: A double-header from TVT Soundtrax, this CD combines two of Carter Burwell's most memorable scores for films by the cinema auteurs, brothers Ethan and Joel Coen. Burwell has a lot to thank the Coen Brothers for. Over the years, his scores for Coen movies such as Blood Simple, Raising Arizona and The Hudsucker Proxy have increased the public's awareness of his music and, as the Coens' star has ascended, so has Burwell's, making him one of the most impressive and admired young composers around at the moment.

The first one on this album, Fargo, is my personal favourite Coen movie and personal favourite Burwell score. A blackly comic thriller starring Frances McDormand, William H. Macy and Steve Buscemi, it tells the tale of a kidnapping that goes horribly wrong amid the snowy wastes of a North Dakota winter, and the ensuing investigation by the backwoods Brainerd police chief Marge Gundersen, whose outwardly eccentric manner belies her intelligence and resourcefulness. Much like the film itself, Burwell's score has a warm heart which, because of its superficial bleakness and desolation, is not immediately obvious. Cleverly, the main theme is based in part on an old Norwegian folk tune (many of Minnesota and Dakota's inhabitants are of Scandinavian descent, hence the unusual surnames in the film), and is first heard in 'Fargo, North Dakota' where it builds from a quiet, tinkling harp motif into a quirky but enjoyable fiddle solo by Paul Peabody with accompaniment from heavy percussion.

It gets further memorable performances in cues such as 'A Lot of Woe' (a clarinet-based recapitulation), 'Chewing On It', 'Bismarck, North Dakota' and the music box-like 'Brainerd, Minnesota'. Fargo was not a film that required much music to set its tone, so Burwell's role in the film was to add mood music rather than to give the film an emotional core. As a result, his score is fairly spartan, and tends to accompany various incidental link scenes of people driving, or shots of snowy wastelands. 'Moose Lake', 'The Ozone', 'Dance of the Sierra' and 'Paul Bunyon' present simple violin chords against a quiet jazz countermelody, while 'Forced Entry', 'The Trooper's End', 'Rubbernecking', 'Delivery' and the disquieting 'The Eager Beaver' add a touch of urgency and dissonance to the horribly realistic action scenes - anyone remember the woodchipper?

In a complete turnaround, the score from Barton Fink is all about eccentricity and experimentation. The film tells the story of a tortured New York writer played by John Turturro, who moves to Hollywood to write screenplays and, while holed up in a dingy apartment, becomes involved in all manner of peculiar things, including various encounters with a travelling salesman who has homicidal tendencies. Burwell's score here is quite unusual, but interesting, conveying both the hallucinogenic nature of the film and the solitude of its central character. Some unusual sound effects (tolling bells and drain effects in 'Love Theme from Barton Fink' and the sounds of steam trains and people fighting in 'The Box') are incorporated into the score but, as well as being weird, parts of Barton Fink are also quite entertaining and enjoyable. Burwell himself plays the score's lovely piano solos in 'Big Shoes' the aforementioned 'Love Theme' the slightly disjointed accelerando 'Typing Montage', and the more conventionally attractive finale, 'Fade Out'.

Track Listing:



Running Time: 42 minutes 16 seconds

TVT Soundtrax/Madfish Movies (1996)

FARGO: Music composed and conducted by Carter Burwell. Orchestrations by Carter Burwell. Featured musical soloist Paul Peabody. Recorded and mixed by Michael Farrow. Edited by Todd Kasow. Mastered by Phil Klum. Album produced by Carter Burwell.

BARTON FINK: Music composed by Carter Burwell. Conducted and orchestrated by Sonny Kompanek. Featured musical soloist Carter Burwell. Special sound effects by Skip Lievsay. Recorded and mixed by Michael Farrow. Edited by Todd Kasow. Mastered by Phil Klum. Album produced by Carter Burwell.

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These web pages were designed and maintained by Jonathan Broxton copyright 1999. All opinions and views expressed on these pages are my own and are in no way intended to reflect those of my employer, the Trent Institute for Health Services Research, or those of the University of Sheffield.