I have already reviewed Elmer Bernstein’s classic score for the iconic 1969 John Wayne version of True Grit. There were a lot of necessary spoilers contained within that review. Being as many people will be coming fresh to the Coen Brothers’ incredible remake of Henry Hathaway’s fondly recalled original screen adaptation of the seminal Charles Portis novel, I had intended to try and rein back on such a level of detail here for Carter Burwell’s eloquent and hypnotic score. But, to do this score justice and to properly analyse how Burwell and Bernstein tackled the exact same adventure, there will still have to be some spoilers given away – so I give fair warning beforehand. If you want to avoid such things, then I advise that you should return to this review after you have seen the film. Or just skip to the verdict. I will say upfront, though, that both the remake and the original films are virtually identical to one another, even down to mannerisms and dialogue (both follow the book extraordinarily well, you see), so it would inevitably be difficult not to give too much away about a tale that is already so well known.
Since John Barry refashioned the sound of the American Western with The White Buffalo in 1977, the modern horse opera, barring one or two vibrant and rousing exceptions (Silverado, by Bruce Broughton, The Quick And The Dead by Alan Silvestri), has been the recipient of more soulful, expressive and elegiac scores. You only have to look at the slew of more recently-produced Westerns to discover that the mood and ambience, part and parcel of a desire to furnish audiences with authentic period dressing and more realistic character-based stories, has been darker, and more textured, more psychological. With things like Dances Of Wolves (Barry), Tombstone (Broughton at his more demented and expressive), Unforgiven (an elegiac Lennie Niehuas), The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (Nick Cave and Warren Ellis), Appaloosa (Jeff Beal), Open Range (an unusual choice in Michael Kamen) and even the remake of 3.10 To Yuma (the redoubtable Marco Beltrami) opting to explode the myth of the Old West, it is not surprising that the Coen Brothers – who sound like a gang of frontier varmints, themselves – kept up their ongoing relationship with composer Carter Burwell, a man whose dark and often melancholy scores would form the perfect template for this grizzled, heartfelt and Biblically-penetrating tale of wrong-righting and coming-of-age. There are shades of the great Miller's Crossing in the wonderful way in which themes he uses become cyclic, turn around in later permutations and become stronger, or darker edged, and then spin out in final soothing harmony after the fireworks. It is marvellous stuff – rich, melodic, pastoral and soaked in the sepia ambience of a world so many of us love and, indeed, yearn for. It is perhaps a touch strange how embracing this more placatory, nostalgic style can be when compared to the lusty and bravura approach to scores for The Magnificent Seven or The Big Country, or the iconic Saddle-Operatics of Morricone's music for The Dollars Trilogy and other Spaghettis, but this is a considered evocation of time and place … and attitude.
Like all of his collaborations with the Coens, Burwell's score is emphatically simple, and repetitive.
For True Grit, the tale of fourteen year old Mattie Ross' quest to bring her father's killer to justice, he follows the book's assertion that this is her story, seen through her eyes, told in her words and felt with her heart. Being a strong and wilful girl of Presbyterian upbringing, her diction, her resolve and her sense of self-righteousness assumes the main direction in which the score goes. Her theme, which is the main recurring theme throughout, is gentle, melodic, slightly wistful and with hints of an acceptance of loneliness. It is for piano and swooning strings, but Burwell allows the capacity for woodwinds, particularly the clarinet, to take up the harmony, accentuating Mattie with developing character to match her experiences with the scruffy Marshal, Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), and the Texas Ranger, La Beouf (Matt Damon), as they track down the man responsible for her father's murder, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). Film-fans will easily recognise this main theme as being a reworking of Anthony J. Showoltar and Elisha J. Hoffman's 1887 hymn “Leaning On The Everlasting Arms” made famous by its haunting prevalence in Charles Laughton's classic thriller/fable The Night Of The Hunter. Burwell, for the majority of the score is exploring the meadow-lands of soft Americana … and it is a beautiful thing, the mark of the modern-made Western. He has the orchestration of Old West compositions, tuning-in to that peaceful, slow-moving introspection that he is clearly very fond of, judging by his previous, and more original scores. Big full-blown symphonics rarely intrude upon his work, and the rowdy and clichéd brilliance of the popular Western soundtrack intrudes here even less.
The hymn, as well as others, and even traditional music from the era, forms the backbone around which the entire score is woven. Light and stately in Track 1's quaint The Wicked Flee, as Mattie begins to relate to us the story of how her quest begins. The piano leads the way, until strings sweep over the top for the final passage of this delightful track. A more sombre treatment of the theme for woodwinds comes next, in a yearning piece of suppressed anguish. After the half-way point, Burwell's cue turns more courtly, possibly more optimistic as the strings return, and then falls back into that plaintiff yearning motif, suggestive of a partial understanding, and a parting of the ways.
Track 3, Little Blackie, revolves around Mattie getting her horse and preparing to go on this grand adventure of payback, after managing to procure the services of the raggedy Marshal. It is a charming piece that is very distinctly and pleasantly upbeat, providing the sound of the era, almost as though a saloon band has struck up, quietly, when there was nobody else around to spoil a mutually reflective and cathartic little honky-tonk jamming session. It is the type of cue that usually accompanies either a montage or a camera-shot that rises up and away over the top of a burgeoning frontier town. It is happy and optimistic, yet gentle and unassuming. If anything, this is where Burwell seeks to remind us that Mattie, despite her formidable skills with book-keeping and verbal negotiation and determination for justice, is really still just a young girl at heart. It is also another reworking of the same theme.
Much of these early cues revolve around simple or playful variations on this theme. But one grand stand-outs, however, would have to be the barnstorming River Crossing, Track 4. In spite of Burwell's sincere desire to keep to an intimate and subdued path, this actually plays out like a knowing homage to all those classic old school Westerns. We see that the Marshal and the Texas Ranger have deliberately left her behind and taken the ferry without her, hoping that she will get the hint and not continue with her obsession to go along with them on the dangerous manhunt. Just as Kim Darby did back in 1969, young Hailee Steinfeld, as Mattie, urges her trusty mount into the river and swim-rides her way over to the other shore, much to the exasperation and hidden awe of her two unlikely companions. Pleasantly heroic and stalwart, there are churning strings, little bits of encouragement from the trumpets and a sort of muted, precocious energy that lacks anything resembling aggression. Instead, there is the exciting sense of having got one over on them, a childish delight in unexpected victory. This is the closest that Burwell comes to coining that typical Western sound – frontier pomp and the grandiose observation of having such a vast playground in which to roam, and the endless possibilities that such freedom promises. It is also a variation on the hymn, The Gloryland Way, Burwell's and the Coens' insistence on period arrangements really finding thematic nourishment from this adherence to Mattie's devoted convictions and beliefs.
Curiously, what we do not find are any individual themes for Rooster Cogburn, himself, or for for the Texas Ranger either. Although this was always supposed to be Mattie's odyssey, it is still a rather striking concept for Western with such a rascally and colourful central character as the one-eyed Marshal to deny him a signature motif. It seems that the Coens and Burwell came to realise this omission rather late in the day, and we shall look at how they sought to make amends a little further on.
In The Hanging Man, Mattie and Rooster discover a body hauled way up high in the boughs of a tall tree, almost as though that pesky Predator has mounted it up there as a trophy. The softly jaunty main theme gives way to an oboe-led refrain as a stranger enters the scene to claim the body, and Rooster prepares to stand his ground. This is a nice new sound that reminds us of the treacherous mission that they undertake and the “bets-are-off” weirdness to be encountered in Indian country. The oboe does, indeed, seem to supply a vaguely tribal quality. This is retained throughout Talk About Suffering, in Track 6, in which a more melancholy passage, almost like a “time passes” montage, elicits a bleak appreciation of bare trees, snowflakes falling and plodding progress through the wilderness. Brass, strings and piano drift in across the cue, somehow making it seem all the lonelier.
A more rounded and fuller-sounding version of the main theme rises up with a brief brass flurry in Your Headstrong Ways – sprightly and semi-jovial considering the reluctant and begrudged relationship between Mattie and the cantankerous Marshal. Woodwind, piano and gently swelling strings embellish the short Track 9, We Don't Need Him Do We?, a tentative meditation on the tribulations of the job at hand as the Texas Ranger opts to go on alone to avoid any further arguing with Rooster. Burwell continues with a sentimental pastoral of the main theme, capped-off with a lilting flourish from the harp and piano in Father's Gun.
Things take a darker turn once we hit Track 11, A Methodist And A Son Of A Bitch. Happening on a dugout cabin housing two bandits that Rooser knows can lead them to Tom Chaney and an outlaw
named Lucky Ned Pepper, the Marshal attempts to smoke them out. Burwell's own music gains tension from icy strings and ominous tones, the track then incorporating a sudden flurry of tom-toms that is very similar to a timpani motif that John Barry used in both his score for the '76 remake of King Kong but, far more pertinently, in his Oscar-nabbing score for Kevin Costner's Dances With Wolves. It is a primal sound, and although only brief – which is something of a hallmark for Burwell, his most exciting moments are usually over and done with in seconds, yet still contain a solid kick - it provides a dangerous phrasing for the now seriously violent confrontation that ensues and its grim aftermath. A tender section for piano follows in Track 12's Talking To Horses, that acts as a wonderful lull before the storm that comes next, in Turkey Shoot. More glacial strings form a lid over the cue until darker, deeper and more menacing tones indicate the precarious position that the Texas Ranger has found himself in by walking straight into the trap that Rooster had intended for Lucky Ned. Burwell's music is threatening and severe. The bass rumbles whilst ethnic rattles and percussion add nervous energy to a situation that worsens considerably as the outlaw gang finally turn up and encircle the lone La Boeuf. As his plan to trap the gang crumbles amid blood and chaos, it is Cogburn, himself, who best sums up the situation-turned-sour … “Well, that didn't pan out,” he drawls in disgruntled understatement as Pepper gets away. We have entered the grimmest section of Carter Burwell's score. The hymns seem to have fallen by the wayside, for the moment at least, and he has created a miasma of callous, black-hearted tones and shivering textures, punctuated, like gun-blasts, by percussion, angular jangles from the piano, and from snare-drums. It is a tense set-piece that brings the danger back to the score.
Having been dragged behind a horse, accidentally shot through the shoulder and having bitten almost all the way through his own tongue, La Beouf opts to head back to Texas, having declared that the trail leading to Chaney has gone dry. It is a touching scene when he says his farewell to Mattie, the musical cue for which is way back in Track 2, a delicate and bittersweet variation on the main theme for strings. After he has departed, and quite by chance, Mattie literally stumbles into the company of their very quarry, himself, as she chances upon him down by the river. Bungling the execution she so longs to sentence him with, and only wounding him with her father's gun, the girl ends up in his clutches. Burwell's music becomes a series of dread-filled tones as Ned Pepper arrives and Mattie is Taken Hostage (Track 14) by the gang. The score is at its most potentially violent during this section. Sudden percussive blurts stagger the pace, string sustains fray the nerves. Mattie is in a dilemma, to be sure, but her level head and verbal skills soon put Ned Pepper on the back-heel. A solo trumpet serenades the gang's flight back up the mountain with their captive, drums rattling away in the background. Burwell maintains the intensity of this quirky development without intrusion upon the dark character beats that consume the sequence. Pepper doesn't want a hostage and, truth be told, he even seems to like and admire the girl for her pluck. But, cursing the fact that Tom Chaney has brought the wrath of the law down upon them, he hatches a scheme that will enable him and the other three members of his crew light out. The second half of the track applies the thumbscrews with long low notes echoing softly beneath agonisingly slow strings.
With Mattie now incurring the hate and vitriol of the enraged Chaney, events begin to spiral towards a classic confrontation. Lucky Ned Pepper, who does not seem anywhere near as bad as most conventional Western villains, leads his bandits away, leaving the deadwood of the captured Mattie in the charge of the very man she came looking for.
And then, folks, we get Carter Burwell's magnificent action cue. It has been a long time coming, and it will also be over before you know it … but it is utterly captivating and exhilarating, just the same. This is Track 15, One Against Four, the iconic moment when Rooster Cogburn, having quickly devised a plan of counter-attack, appears at one end of a clearing whilst the bandits line-up at the other. With their cussing and bantering all played-out, there is only one option left – the law of the frontier, and the mythical showdown. “Fill your hand, you sonofabitch!” hollers the Marshal and, the reins held in his teeth just like the bonafide Southern renegade, Captain Quantrill, whom he has bragged about riding with, and just like the Duke before him, Jeff Bridges' Rooster charges his foes, guns blazing in either hand. To Mattie, watching from the cliffs, this is the reason why she hired him. This is the Rooster Cogburn she had heard about. This is what it means to have True Grit.
I have sat in work, in the warm, isolated cocoon evoked by having the score playing through my earphones, oblivious of real life going on around me, and been relocated to the mythical West in all but body, and when this track has begun, I have then been lifted, misty-eyed, defiant and indomitable, to another plane – or, rather, plain – of existence by what Burwell has done so miraculously and in so small a piece of music. The nobility, pride and grandeur of this sudden and surging uplift of heroism is truly remarkable. In the hands of composers that I actually hold in much higher regard – James Horner, Jerry Goldsmith or Bernard Herrman, for example - it would have taken possibly five minutes of gradual build to reach this level of magnificent and euphoric elation. Carter Burwell is able to ignite the spirit with his very first note.
A brass-laden call-to-arms sears the air with four glistening notes of sustained chivalry. Snare-drums begin to gallop. Trumpets rise and fall. A chime echoes at each ecstatic brassy punch and, as the glorious fanfare surges forward, gaining momentum as it charges, cymbals clash in giddy exultation as the bullets begin to fly and Rooster's aim is good. It is impossible to overstate the incredible cathartic release of this dynamic piece. And it is barely 36 seconds in length! The sheer adrenal wallop that Burwell unleashes here is possibly the finest, most exciting stretch of music that I've heard in the last twelve months. Of course, I wish the cue lasted for longer, but its power is only enhanced by this short-lived sense of avenging jubilation. A more rousing fanfare you could not hope to hear.
During the second part of the track, Rooster's horse, Bo, is felled, and the Marshal lies trapped beneath it. Lucky Ned Pepper (played by the appropriately named Barry Pepper, effecting a pitch-perfect Robert Duvall impersonation – Duvall played the character in the original) may be “all shot to pieces” but he still has the lawman at his mercy. A shot from the cliff rings out, Matt Damon's harassed “Texican” has arrived to save the day with the best and most considered bullet he has ever fired. Burwell slices the tension of layered strings with tentative notes on the piano, deliberately downplaying a moment that cries of infinite salvation.
The longest track, The Snake Pit, comes next. Grave low tones suffuse Mattie as she stumbles backward into the deep hole after finally taking the shot that ends her hunt for the despicable Chaney. Battered and bruised, she finds herself at the bottom of the pit, surrounded by snakes and the remains of their victims. Carter Burwell supplies icy strings that paralyse the score with thick dread. Metallic percussion punctures the cue, and violins mimic fingernails drawn down a blackboard. This is most terrorised that Burwell allows the score to become, and it works a treat, really itching its way under your skin and sliding poisonously around you just the same as the snake that finally gets a taste of Mattie's flesh. The main theme then returns, at first subdued, pensive, perhaps too much to hope for … and then, as the wounded Rooster clambers down the pit on a rope, blowing snakes apart with his Navy Colt, becomes deeper, bolder, more of a tired fanfare as he hauls the gravelly injured girl back to the surface.
Of considerable note, is the fact that when Elmer Bernstein scored the Hathaway version, he entitled a crucial cue as Ride For Life. In Burwell’s take on the exact same scenario, he calls it Ride To Death. Now this is a vital element in understanding just how, why and where the two adaptations of the story differ. Whilst the plot, the character, the dialogue and the scenarios are almost exactly, to-the-letter, the same, it is the overall tone of the saga that is different. The mood that each film evokes is the single distinctive voice that separates them. And, even here, there is not all that much difference. Both navigate the character swing-shifts that have enabled the heroic trio to accept one another, faults and all. Both understand that the stakes have risen even higher and that only an act of supreme selflessness can save Mattie now. However, if we stick with the musical “voice” theme, we find that the two scores couldn’t be more alternate.
Bernstein was one of the masters of the Western score. In fact, he was, without a doubt, the master of the traditional American Oater. Grandiose, ever-hummable, toe-tapping and thigh-slapping themes were frequently the order of the day for Bernstein, who revelled in the Silver Age of the genre. With gold-plated classics like The Magnificent Seven, The Sons Of Katie Elder, The Commancheros and The Scalphunters, he created the iconic, sweeping machismo of the frontier and the larger-than-life characters who populated it. He may have delved into the more intimate and earnest, more whimsical variety with The Journey Of Natty Gann (unused in the film but still released and regarded as a classic) and The Shootist, but he will be forever remembered as the creator of Western music that would urge you to strap on your guns and head for the hills with the thrill of adventure spurring you on. Therefore, his take on the Portis story was, in equal parts, stirring and sentimental. His manipulation of his main theme, True Grit, was magisterial throughout a multitude of moods and variations. At once, fiercely heroic, yet at other times, soft, sweet and gentle. He was even able to combine the two moods in one passage.
Carter Burwell, on the other hand, favours a more measured, stately and softly resilient approach. He uses the vernacular of the period – religious, dutiful, resolute and indefatigable, as per the hymns and the teachings from the Good Book that the people of the era thrived on – but translates this into musical themes. Or rather, one musical theme that he has used repeatedly and without too much in the way of variation, except for pace and orchestration, to capture the prevailing essence of the journey that Mattie Ross, Rooster Cogburn and La Boeuf will undertake, and the understanding and acceptance that each will make for the others. This is the music of spiritual rites of passage, much more so than it is the evocation of a wild and dangerous land of unchecked brutality and lawlessness. Mattie, snake-bitten and dying, must give in to the brutish strength and grim determination of man already accused of being ruthless and in whom “a love of decency does not abide”.
As such, Tracks 17 and 18 will simply break the heart in two.
Wayne did it splendidly in his version, racing along with Mattie cradled in his arms until their horse dies under them, and then continuing, against the odds, on foot until he is able to commandeer a wagon from some hunters. Bernstein captured all of this drama and anxiety with a pulse-pounding couplet of cues that, when heard on the score CD, come together to form one of the greatest action cues that the genre has ever provided. For the remake, Bridges and Steinfeld make the same dash for survival, but there is far more emphasis placed on the collapse of the horse, for now it is Mattie's steed, Little Blackie … and the torment that she undergoes as Rooster does what he has to, in order to put the animal out of its misery, is harrowing. Yet Burwell does not flinch from a simple piano phrase of Mattie's theme, gently unfolding it across the cold night as she and the Marshal ride through the darkness until the moment when they can ride no more. He brings in the strings and they decorate the scene like a thin veil against the cold. The end comes with a dreadful, unavoidable crescendo for strings and shell-shocked piano that genuinely twists like a knife. And when that dark moment comes, it really delivers.
Track 18, I Will Carry You, is more searing, more earnest. The clarinet takes the main duty, the theme turning mournful, yet never actually tragic.
Delicate. Devastating. This is like a painful lullaby, a reverie of noble sacrifice. Guitar and strings form a gradually swelling undercurrent. The Marshal fights off her rage at him, hefts her up and jogs off across the epic landscape, beneath a canopy of fantastical stars. I agree that here, on the album, this sounds like little more than a soothing repeat of the Everlasting Arms theme, but watched with the film, this is awesomely powerful in its very fragility.
A plain and simple piano rendition of What A Friend We Have In Jesus cradles the first half of the story's epilogue, in Track 19, and then, just as simply, we hear the main theme once again as the much older Mattie looks down at the Grave of Rooster Cogburn. Burwell has closed the score as he began it, with quiet, wistful dignity and with an unapologetic acceptance of Mattie Ross, and her surprisingly shrewish ways.
The album ends, as does the film, with Iris DeMent’s rendition of Leaning On The Everlasting Arms. Whilst I like this somewhat raucously-vocalised country-ballad version of the hymn, I also find it a touch too much of deviation from Burwell’s music. We have had no voices in the score, so when this suddenly strikes up, it is almost as though the Coens have pandered to that despicable trend of filmmakers tailing their films with a song for commercial purposes. Now, I’m not suggesting that this version will swiftly be available for download and will have celebrity wannabes crooning it out on talent shows, but this is the feeling that comes across after the exquisite period fugue that we have been through right up until now.
Cruelly, the score has been disqualified from getting an Academy Award nomination due the now-antiquated rules regarding the re-appropriation of existing music without due acknowledgement. In this case, it is Burwell's delicate rephrasing of the Protestant hymn “Leaning On The Everlasting Arms” as his thematic anchor, a nod to “What A Friend We Have In Jesus” and his interpolation of “Hold To God's Unchanging Hand” to establish a last-minute musical bond between Mattie and Rooster. The addition of new footage of the girl and the Marshal down in the snake-pit by the Coens helped to augment this new theme for Burwell, and to plant it into the musical narrative as a powerful connection between the two main characters. I mentioned earlier the lack of a signature theme for Rooster, well this is the closest that we get. Burwell actually did write a hymn of his own for the film, but this, sadly, never made it into the finished score. Although steadfast about what he has achieved with True Grit, I think it is apparent that the composer is a little rueful about losing this element and about how the Academy, and even Paramount Pictures have treated the score. The studio is supposed tom have panicked about the use of the traditional hymns once they realised that they would have to give them credits – proof that the suits who green-light projects really don't have a clue what they are dealing with when it comes to the creative talent that actually makes the films for them.
Beautiful, haunting, intimate. Carter Burwell rides into the wilds of the Choctaw Nation, out of Arkansas, alongside the great and flawed force of nature that is Rooster Cogburn. He doesn't need blood and thunder. He doesn't need jaw-irons, banjos, fiddles or Tex-Mex flavourings. He doesn't need the howl of a coyote, or the whirligig stampede of amassed brass. He needs the broken, troubled nobility of a reluctant one-eyed US Marshal, the undefeated spirit of a girl whose duty and honour should be an inspiration to us all, and the contradictory, blissfully idiosyncratic and rhapsodising mood of the Coen Brothers.
And like the much-missed Elmer Bernstein before him, he proves he has was it takes. He proves he has True Grit.
Please be aware that if you download this album from Amazon, you may well wind-up with the track listing in the wrong order. This was an early error, and I do not know if it has been properly rectified yet.
Here is the Full and Correct Track Listing
The Wicked Flee 2.34
La Boeuf Takes Leave 2.57
Little Blackie 1.05
River Crossing 1.22
The Hanging Man 1.56
Talk About Suffering 1.33
Your Headstrong Ways 0.30
A Great Adventure 0.55
We Don't Need Him Do We? 0.49
Father's Gun 1.20
A Methodist And A Son Of A Bitch 3.00
Talking To Horses 0.35
A Turkey Shoot 2.44
Taken Hostage 2.00
One Against Four 1.37
The Snake Pit 3.15
Ride To Death 2.28
I Will Carry You 1.58
A Quarter Century 1.23
The Grave 0.59
Track 21 found only on certain versions
Leaning On The Everlasting Arms (performed by Iris DeMent)
The Coens have constructed a masterful adaptation of the classic tale of retribution and redemption with True Grit. Their regular composer has helped them to find the soul of the story, embracing the danger, the devotion and the spiritual strength of the main characters and, in so doing, capturing an ambience that is wistful, earnest and incredibly haunting. Carter Burwell, however, has not delivered a starkly original score of his own, or one that is in the predictably rousing and action-packed style that many may have expected for this much-loved adventure. He has crafted something quite unique with this assimilation and remoulding of 19th Century Gospel hymns, using them as a framework from which to hang his musical odyssey. Yet they work with spellbinding results.
Controversy seems to plague the score, though. Erroneous downloads are one thing, and cues missed off the official release are another. But the firm refusal of the Academy to enter Burwell's score for a nomination is sure to spark debate and rancour. Personally, I understand the reasons behind their methodology, but surely it is hard-faced arrogance not to recognise a score that so marvellously embodies the colour, personality and mood of the film that it was created for. And when that film is as meticulously honed, directed and performed as True Grit, this ruling seems doubly absurd.
However, Carter Burwell's True Grit is thing of dark and sombre beauty that may not be to everyone's taste, nor even evoke the rip-roaring standards that some may demand from the Old West, but the score remains a splendid musical experience just the same. Married to the visuals, it is majestic and heartbreaking. On its own, it is more of a thoughtful reflection on a musical idiom from a bygone age. This said, it still contains that stirring fanfare for Rooster Cogburn's valiant charge, and the hypnotic race against time to save a young girl's life.And for this, it wins hands-down.
The soundtrack for True Grit comes highly recommended.
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