Carter Burwell’s Score for HAIL, CAESAR! Humorous Homage to Miklos Rozsa and Hollywood's Golden

Last weekend, I found myself in the North Hollywood Cinemark Theater (a much less-expensive alternative to the Arclight where every seat is a reclining Barcalounger), to see the Coen Brothers’ latest, HAIL, CAESAR! Although I my posterior was firmly planted in that very comfortable seat, in my mind, I was rolling on the floor with laughter at the many clever references to the Golden Age of Hollywood.

Some of the best jokes for me were musical ones to be found in Carter Burwell’s score, which was an extended homage to the music of Miklos Rozsa. The story line includes a Biblical blockbuster, so Burwell alludes the music of BEN HUR with the Roman military might being conveyed with lots of snare drums and blaring brass playing figures with a lot of modal interchange (where chords from the minor scale find themselves in a major key). Obviously no sound recordings survived the Alexandria Library fire in the 4th century CE, so we have to trust Rozsa’s idea of what Romans on the march would have sounded like. And we do. Just as we trust Aaron Copland’s APPALACHIAN SPRING where so many of the tropes that we associate with the Old West in the 19th century were first brought to our attention.

Burwell also turns to Rozsa’s great noir music, rich with chromaticism and attitude, like DOUBLE INDEMNITY, for the scenes in HAIL, CAESAR! where some kind of mischief is afoot.

A good comedy score is all over the map, stylistically. The scary cues are scarier, the bombastic cues are bigger and more pompous. There’s a terrific homoerotic sailors tap-dance number featuring Channing Tatum that hearkens back to Rodgers & Hammerstein’s SOUTH PACIFIC. And of course there’s singing cowboy music too.

What makes a parody work is how closely it hews to the original. So many cues left me laughing because of how well they evoked the film music of the 1950s.

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