Sharps and Flats: Soundtrack from "The Big Lebowski"

By Keith Moerer

Published March 5, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

I've only seen the trailer for "The Big Lebowski," but I'm convinced the Coen brothers' new film isn't half as good as the soundtrack that accompanies it. Based on 60 seconds of evidence, the movie is an uneasy blend of "Fargo" and "Kingpin" -- a dark, high-concept comedy about "murder, greed and bowling." Steve Buscemi and John Turturro offer indie-film cred, but the movie's real stars are John Goodman and Jeff Bridges, who's tricked out as a shaggy drifter named Dude (almost as improbable as the stammering lover he played in "The Mirror Has Two Faces"). My preview review of "The Big Lebowski": not a bad movie, just a self-conscious attempt to prove that big box-office expectations haven't tamed the Coens completely.

The soundtrack, co-produced by T-Bone Burnett and the filmmakers, is another matter. Burnett is the sort of real-life eccentric the Coens love to manufacture, a too-tall Texan who got his start in the '60s playing drums for a lunatic remembered only as the Legendary Stardust Cowboy. Though he's recorded half-a-dozen albums himself, Burnett is better known for producing critics' darlings who don't sell (his wife Sam Phillips, Joe Henry) and whipping boys who do (the Wallflowers, Counting Crows). He's been fingered as the guy who converted Bob Dylan to Christianity in the '70s, but he's more a Flannery O'Connor skeptic than a careerist sap like Amy Grant.

Unlike stars pretending to be "characters," "The Big Lebowski" soundtrack is full of genuine oddballs and geeks, with Burnett rescuing many songs from the musical margins of the '60s and '70s. There's Yma Sumac, a Peruvian housewife who reinvented herself as an Inca princess, singing jungle exotica; Captain Beefheart, a California desert recluse growling like Howlin' Wolf on a spastic-rhythm love song, "Her Eyes are a Blue Million Miles"; and jazz exile Nina Simone offering a particularly tender, soul-sick version of "I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good."

Dylan opens the album, sounding energized and optimistic ("The Man in Me," from 1970's New Morning), but Townes Van Zandt ends it, cross-eyed and doomed on a cover of the Stones' "Dead Flowers." In between, there's plenty of high art -- an excerpt from Erich Korngold's opera "Die Tote Stadt" and Meredith Monk's beautiful, breathy a cappella "The Walking Song." But even the kitsch is good: Kenny Rogers' early stab at pop psychedelia, "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In"), holds up surprisingly well, while the Gypsy Kings' half-English, half-Spanish take on "Hotel California" is a fractured flamenco goof. The only new song is Elvis Costello's "My Mood Swings," a sloppy, joyous rocker written and sung on the fly. Burnett fills out the album with instrumental music that serves as the movie's unofficial score: the lovely minimalism of Moondog with Orchestra, the fruity pop of Henry Mancini and the hipster jazz of Piero Piccioni (an Italian composer some soundtrack fanatics swear is superior to his better-known contemporary, Ennio Morricone).

I have no idea how any of this fits into the movie itself -- the only music in the trailer is John Fogerty's "Run Through the Jungle" -- but it doesn't really matter. "The Big Lebowski" soundtrack is as strange as a Midwestern landscape populated by lovers, loners, losers and creeps. Sounds like a great movie -- or an even better soundtrack -- to me.

Keith Moerer

Keith Moerer is a regular contributor to Salon.

MORE FROM Keith Moerer

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Coen Brothers Music