Americana Goes to the Movies with True Grit and Get Low
American movies have long had a love affair with acoustic, roots music and Americana. Examples are plentiful including Easy Rider, Long Riders, Oh Brother Where Art Thou, Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid to name a few. But none resonate more deeply than two of 2010’s premiere films Get Low and True Grit. Although True Grit found it’s way to a mainstream audience Get Low did not. Both films had scores as stirring as they were haunting. Both film scores were passed over for recognition by today’s Academy Awards. Fortunately for Americana music fans both films will be available on DVD and online soon. Get Low has just found it’s way to DVD release last week after spending months in mostly art house cinemas but never gaining enough traction to get into the mainstream public eye.
Film score, as an art, has long been an under appreciated for all but the most devoted of music fans. I must confess, since childhood I’ve loved listening to scores for films like How The West Was Won and The Magnificent Seven as works of their own. Later, Randy Newman would change or perhaps revive how engaged a score could be with films like The Natural and Ragtime. Possibly the first known acoustic music score was Dylan’s Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid.
Then there’s the difference between soundtrack and score. While the soundtrack includes songs meant to whisk the viewer away deeper into the mood of the picture, a score exists underneath the story, images and action sometimes getting buried so deep in the process, it becomes incidental(as scores have been described in the past). But, ultimately, the impact of the film without the score would be diminished to such a degree as to take away from both the art and the accessibility of the work. In both films, Get Low and True Grit, it’s impossible to imagine them without the unassuming underlying music streaming through them.
As ever, the Coen Bros are real Americana music fans. What pair of directors would be hip enough to the form to pull Jimmie Dale Gilmore into a minor role as a bowling partner of The Dude in The Great Lebowoski, let alone come up withone of the best pure musical films of the last 30 years, Oh Brother Where Art Thou which enlarged acoustic music audience ten-fold? But in True Grit, they allow the subtleties of the film score to carry the story through to it’s redemptive conclusion. The composer, Carter Burwell, uses one song,
the beloved gospel hymn ” Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”, as a point of reference for theme and even for a bit of Americana movie history. The song reoccurs throughout giving the Coen Brother’s beautifully realized vision of the old west a sense of melancholy and vision. Then, there’s the presence of the song itself with its link to the classic 1950’s Gothic film noir, Night of the Hunter, and the unforgettable black and white image of the darkly clad psychopathic preacher, played by Robert Mitchum, stalking two small children. He whistles the theme and even sings a duet with silent film queen Lillian Gish as they wait in the night for a pending murderous dawn. Ironically, in True Grit, it’s the innocent one who preys the villain when heronie Mattie seeks retribution for the murder of her father.
As the film draws to it’s climax with Rooster Cogburn(well played by Jeff Bridges) rescues fourteen year-old Mattie from a snake pit and then rides her deep into a winter night toward safety. The music turns dream like and we are slowly brought to the post script scene 25 years later of Mattie learning of Cogburn’s death. As the credits begin we hear Iris Dements’ moving version of “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” coming on with a sense of relief and, like the film, with a taste of classic nostalgia and modern urgency for some kind of redemption.
Jerry Douglas’ work on Get Low comes across with a slow revelatory meditation on the main character, Felix Bush, who seeks forgiveness toward the end of his days, before he ‘gets low.’ For a film score composer this was a risky choice, but with the presence Robert Duvall, perhaps the greatest living American actor, it would be hard to resist. The dobro seems to be singing to us, telling us about Duvall’s face and the sometimes haunted look in his eyes. At the film’s beginning Duvall is a retired, wild-eyed silent hermit, but then slowly, as the story unfolds, his heart opens wide reaching out for confession and redemption. The riddle is why a hermit of 40 years would ask for a public funeral while he is still alive? The film tells us why. Douglas’ music underscores both the mystery and the sense of discovery with acoustic instrumentation. By the film’s end, we have experienced moments that play like a duet between Jerry Douglas and Robert Duvall.
At the conclusion of both films, I gave them my increasingly rare but most honored tribute; about five minutes of silence after the lights went up. The interplay with the music in both films reminds me of why movies are great and why we seek them out; to find something real framed in a story with sights and sounds that draw us into our dark nights and our brightest days. While neither film score garnered Academy recognition, so will be overlooked during today’s Oscar ceremonies, they should not go without some recognition of the work of love, grace and craft that’s been put into these scores, a vehicle that has sometimes been called ‘incidental’ music.’ But, there is nothing incidental here.