If you haven’t yet seen the latest Coen Brothers effort, ‘The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs’, then you’re in for a treat. Released through Netflix (and if you haven’t got access to Netflix then surely someone you know must have – just pitch up on their doorstep with two fingers of red eye and persuade them to watch it with you), it’s a portmanteau movie set in the old west with six distinct tales. These pitch from rib tickling fun to very dark humour and there are echoes of influences as far ranging as Gene Autry, Cormac McCarthy and even an obscure 1920’s Danish film, ‘The Phantom Carriage’. Murder and dirty deeds loom large throughout. Of note to AUK readers is the presence of Tom Waits and Willie Watson on screen and two compositions by David Rawlings and Gillian Welch on the soundtrack.
Unlike many post Tarantino soundtracks this one lacks dialogue and is more traditional in that most of it is the score composed by Carter Burwell, a regular collaborator with the Coens. Burwell successfully evokes the wide-open spaces of the frontier with elements drawn from cowboy songs, cinematic predecessors such as Dimitri Tiomkin and Jerome Moss, and Aaron Copeland’s classics. Sadly, Waits doesn’t make an appearance on the soundtrack and one of the Rawlings/Welch contributions is a 50-second instrumental. However, they did compose a new song for the film, ‘When A Cowboy Trades His Spurs For Wings’, which is sung here by Willie Watson and Tim Blake Nelson (who plays the character of Buster Scruggs, a singing cowboy). It’s an excellent song couched in the yippie-kayeh cowboy tradition with mournful harmonica, heavenly choir and bittersweet harmonies. Elsewhere Nelson gets into character with a tremendous clip clop rendition of ‘Cool Water’ while later he sings of a rambunctious and bloody bar room brawl in music hall style on ‘Surly Joe’.
Dotted amidst Burwell’s score the songs will be the elements here most likely to attract attention but overall it’s a fine listen and a welcome reminder that Western scores were quite impressive enough before it became mandatory to go all Morricone on the audience. In addition, there’s a lovely rendition of ‘The Unfortunate Lad’, a traditional song on the perils of venereal disease, sung perfectly by Brendan Gleason. Do have a listen and definitely see the film.