Ethan Coen is quick to make note of the obvious: Music is not a central part of his and brother Joel Coen’s new movie Hail, Caesar!–which opens today–as it necessarily was with their preceding folk music-focused Inside Llewyn Davis.
But the music in Hail, Caesar!, which is set in the 1950s, is noteworthy nonetheless. Listen closely and you’ll hear bits of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Jacques Offenbach, not to mention Red Army songs. And as the film features sequences from five genre films-within-the-film, there are plenty of opportunities for Coen-clever corresponding music choices.
“Unlike the last one, we weren’t thinking about music while we were writing it,” says Coen, “except for the obvious things like the production numbers. But most of the music was underscoring with [regular Coens film composer] Carter Burwell afterwards.”
Speaking of production numbers, the dazzling musical show dance sequence with Channing Tatum from the musical film-within-the-film No Dames! showcases its titletrack song written expressly for the occasion by award-winning Broadway songwriters Henry Krieger and Willie Reale. And Tony-winning Christopher Gattelli’s breathtaking choreography accomplishes a feat seldom seen in contemporary films.
“Nobody does that in movies anymore!” Coen says, invoking Busby Berkeley and his seminal musical production numbers of the 1930s. “Busby designed choreography for the camera–with techniques like overhead shots. Now it’s done just for proscenium [theater] shows.”
Same with the extraordinary water ballet scene, continues Coen.
“There aren’t even facilities for it!” he says, noting that they actually used the same immense Hollywood water tank used by Esther Williams in her synchronized swimming “aquamusicals” of the ‘40s and ‘50s, the kaleidoscopic synch-swim sequence here performed by a group called The Aqualillies.
“Nobody does it anymore!” reiterates Coen. “Nobody’s even thought about it in 50 years—which is really irritating. We had to start from scratch!”
Of course, The Aqualillies were “thrilled” about swimming in Williams’ strokes, to the tune—overlayed by Burwell later–of Offenbach’s “Barcarolle, Belle Nuit” from Tales of Hoffman. The tank was also used in a climactic scene near the end of the film, backed by the Red Army Choir singing songs including the famous Russian folk song “Kalinka.”
Another Russian melody is heard in the scene where Alden Ehrenreich, the actor whose role as rope-spinning hero Hobie Doyle in Hail, Caesar!’s singing cowboy film-within-the film Lazy Ol’ Moon is bound to be a breakthrough, is on a studio-facilitated nightclub date with a Carmen Miranda-type star. Tommy Dorsey’s jazz standard “Song of India,” which is based on an aria from Rimsky-Korsakov’s 1896 opera Sadko, is played by the band after the Benny Goodman hit “Glory of Love.”
But perhaps the most recognizable music usage comes in Lazy Ol’ Moon, when Eddie Arnold’s classic version of “The Cattle Call” is heard.
“Alden wanted that piece of music on the set when he trained, to help him keep the beat,” says Coen. As for the movie title-inspiring song “Lazy Old Moon,” sung by Roy Rogers and Sally March in the 1939 western The Arizona Kid, it’s performed on the soundtrack by former Old Crow Medicine Show member Willie Watson, who also performed in the Another Day, Another Time: Celebrating The Music of Inside Llewyn Davis folk music concert in New York promoting that film prior to its release.
Incidentally, Coen credits Riders in the Sky’s Ranger Doug for Lazy Ol’ Moon’s sidekick Curly, played by the late J.R. Horne (who also appeared in the Coens’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Burn After Reading).
“It owes a lot to his radio show,” Coen says of Ranger Doug’s SiriusXM Ranger Doug’s Cowboy Corral vintage cowboy music and comedy show, also featuring his Riders in the Sky mate “Too Slim” Fred LaBour in the role of his sidekick, Sidemeat.
“It informed a lot of my thinking about sidekickdom,” says Coen.