“I Am The Walrus?”
Musical Representation in ‘The Big Lebowski’
By Rev. Sean Reedy
‘The Big Lebowski’ (1998), is unique in the Coen Brothers’ filmography as it was their first to use an almost entirely compiled soundtrack. However, in their traditional idiosyncrasy, Joel and Ethan decided to take a unique spin on this format. “We were trying to find signature songs for each of the characters,” explains Ethan Coen, quoted by Chris Willman in his article “‘Big’ Audio Dynamite” (1998, p. 93). This suggests that the Coens were attempting to update the leitmotif style, using popular songs. However, when watching the film, we can see that most of these representational songs do not repeat themselves. They occur only once, usually at the introduction of a character, and are not heard for the remainder of the film. There are a few exceptions to this, and they will be discussed later. Therefore, it is debatable as to whether we can call these songs “leitmotifs”, as they do not conform to many of the definitions of this term. David Schroeder defines the leitmotif as “represent[ing] a person, an object, an event, a personal quality, or perhaps even an emotion” (2003, p. 75), and by this definition, these signature songs could be leitmotifs, as they follow this exactly by representing particular people. On the other hand, Anahid Kassabian defines leitmotifs as “refer[ring] to other musical events within the film” (2001, p. 51), so only music that repeats, or references other parts of the score can be considered leitmotifs. There are a few examples of this in ‘The Big Lebowski’, but most of the music does not repeat, and we can already see the problems in using this term for such a technique. Justin London takes a less definitive standpoint, describing leitmotifs as “sonic tokens”. London makes no references to repetition, although he does state that these tokens must have a “significant role in the film’s narrative” (2000, p. 85). This is perhaps the most relevant to ‘The Big Lebowski’, yet London’s essay seems to be completely focused on the classical score. It is clear that the use of music in ‘The Big Lebowski’ is completely different from, say, Wagner, who is credited with inventing and/or popularising the leitmotif (Schroeder, 2003, p. 75), but definitions can change over time, and “Wagner’s treatment of leitmotif… bears little similarity to the way film composers use it” (2003, p. 75). Therefore, we must decide if leitmotif is the best term to use for this kind of musical representation, and if there are any other terms that could illustrate their features more easily.
But before we can define this representation, first we must look at what it actually consists of. Throughout ‘The Big Lebowski’, several, but not all characters are introduced to accompanying music. This music varies with each character, in genre, diegesis and audibility. In fact, Ethan Coen states “the only thing [the songs] share is that nothing is particularly contemporary sounding.” (Willman, 1998, p. 93). He goes on to say that the songs are representative not just of the characters, but of the eras that shaped the characters. We can see this by taking a closer look at the music used for each of the represented characters. Perhaps the most obvious signature song is the Gipsy Kings cover of “Hotel California” that is played over the introduction of Jesus [24:01]. The Spanish style of the music is appropriate as it relates to the ethnicity of the character, and the English lyrics go hand-in-hand with the Western pronunciation of Jesus’ name. The music is played over a shot of Jesus bowling, and celebrating his strike. There is no other sound – no effects, no dialogue – so full attention is given to the music in relation to the images, making it clear that the music is Jesus’ signature song. In an interview with Michel Ciment and Hubert Niogret, Joen Coen explains this scene, saying “there are sequences that we wrote with the music already in our head, like the Latino song… for the sequence with Turturro [John Turturro, the actor who portrays Jesus]. Ethan Coen validates this by saying “In that case, it’s the music that defines the character”, going on to give several more examples (2006, p. 107). Another equally as fitting, but slightly less obvious example of musical representation comes with the character of Maude Lebowski [40:54]. In this case, the music is “Walking Song” by Meredith Monk, an avant-garde vocalist. We hear the song before the entrance of Maude, and at first it seems to be purely atmospheric in its usage. Justin London states that the introduction of a leitmotif involves “the simultaneous presentation of the character and his or her leitmotif” (2000, p. 87), but this simultaneousness is not seen here. However, when Maude swoops down in a harness, splattering paint on a canvas below her, we can see a clear connection between the avant-garde music and the avant-garde art on screen. Both Maude’s and Jesus’ signature songs occur in exactly the same scene as their characters’ first appearances, and are not heard again, even at subsequent appearances of the characters. On a similar vein, the Duke Ellington that plays as Da Fino is introduced [1:28:35] is not heard again, but this is the only appearance of the character, so this is not surprising.
Many of the other signature songs are not so obvious – the techno pop that represents the German Nihilists is only heard at their last appearance [1:37:00], but since it is mentioned by other characters several scenes earlier, and is directly linked to them, once it appears, it is quite obviously representative of them. This representation is similar to that of Jesus, in that it uses the music to represent a certain nationality or origin. In this case, the music playing (written by long time Coen Brothers score composer Carter Burwell) is supposed to have been recorded by the Germans themselves, under the name “Autobahn” (a clear reference to pioneering German electronic band Kraftwerk, whose fourth album was called “Autobahn”). This representation is also different from those previously mentioned as it represents three characters instead of one, and it is also diegetic. There are a few more of these non-repeating representations – “Viva Las Vegas” could be said to represent Bunny, similar to the Nihilists in that it is heard at her last appearance [1:23:23], and Jackie Treehorn’s signature song would be “Lujon” by Henry Mancini [1:13:06], although, like Da Fino, the character only appears once.
Since these songs appear only once, their status as leitmotif is debatable. Adorno and Eisler describe leitmotifs as “function[ing] as trademarks” that are “drummed into the listener’s ear by persistent repetition,” (1947, p. 4). Kassabian also focuses on the idea of repetition by quoting the Harvard definition of leitmotif: “a short theme or musical idea consistently associated with a character, a place or an object, a certain situation or a recurrent idea of the plot” (2001, p. 50). This idea of consistency is not found in the examples I have mentioned, and therefore these particular theorists would not consider them leitmotifs. The question then, is what can we call this use of music? Kassabian puts forth the idea of “Identifying music”, which “can convey or evoke all of the things mentioned in the definition of leitmotiv” (2001, p. 56), but the repetition of the music is not necessary. Kassabian goes on to say that “all leitmotivs are first perceived as one-time music”, implying that if these songs were to appropriately reoccur with their signature characters, then they would become leitmotifs.
However, ‘The Big Lebowski’ has a few examples of signature songs that in fact do repeat. The first example of this is The Stranger’s signature song, “Tumbling Tumbleweeds”, written by Bob Nolan, and recorded by Sons of the Pioneers. This is the first song played in the film [0:22], underneath The Stranger’s narration, and accompanies images of tumbleweed tumbling along in various places, mostly urban. This idea of the music referencing the image (or vice versa) brings to mind the “Mickey Mousing” techniques of early films, except instead of following the action exactly, the subject matter is merely the same. As the song and narration continue, the scene changes to a supermarket, where we see The Dude buying milk [2:12]. Here, the music changes, with the melody staying the same, but the timbre and instruments changing so that it resembles supermarket muzak. This implies that the music is diegetic, although we do not see the source. The original song returns as the scene changes once again, and finishes. The narration has been going on throughout the song, and we come to associate The Stranger’s deep Western voice with this Country and Western cowboy song. Although we do not see The Stranger at this point, we recognise his accent, and firmly associate it with this type of music. When the Stranger returns, at the bowling alley bar, we hear the music again [57:04]. The whole song is not played, just a small snippet, but enough to recognise it. This coincides with the first visual appearance of The Stranger. His voice, combined with the song, lets us know that this is the same character that narrated the opening of the film. In fact, the song appears before the character, to hint at his impending appearance. Unlike a score, where the signature music might be incorporated into the score, the song is exactly the same as it was at the beginning, due to it being prerecorded. If we use the aforementioned definition of leitmotif from Kassabian, this is a prime example of a reference to an earlier musical event, (2001, p. 51), and therefore seems to be a leitmotif in all respects, as it conforms with both Schroeder’s idea of representation (2003, p. 75) and Adorno and Eisler’s idea of repetition (1947, p. 4). This sets it apart from the previously mentioned songs, and where they could only be considered one-time identifying music, this is much closer to being a leitmotif. However, when The Stranger comes back, right at the end of the film [1:45:51], his signature song is not heard. Instead, we have a cover of The Rolling Stones’ “Dead Flowers” by Townes Van Zandt – a country song, or at least a country style performance of it, but a far more modern one than “Tumbling Tumbleweeds”. If we take this song to be a leitmotif, it causes some problems due to it being a prerecorded popular song, and not part of a composed score. Justin London’s discussion of leitmotifs claims that they cannot be considered so if it “takes five to ten seconds (or longer) to unfold,” (2000, p. 88) which of course, “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” does. Although, arguably, when the song returns, we can identify the song within five to ten seconds, due to the repetitive melodies that occur throughout many popular songs. London goes on to say that “one can not radically alter the basic shape of a leitmotif without risk of losing its designated function (2000, p. 88). This again, does not contrast with the use of “Tumbling Tumbleweeds”, even though it is clear that London is referring to the classical score. Therefore, the only thing separating this signature song and the traditional leitmotif is the fact that it is a song, and is not part of a composed score.
Perhaps the most difficult signature song to identify is that of the main character, The Dude. Appearing in almost every scene, we cannot expect to have the same music every time he appears, particularly since his first appearance happens while another signature song is already being played. However, like some of the other songs, the Dude’s signature music has been identified by the Coens themselves, being, of course, the music of Creedence Clearwater Revival. (Ciment & Niogret, 1998, p. 107). What is unusual about this is that instead of playing the same Creedence song multiple times, two Creedence songs are played at different points in the film. The Dude also makes several references to the “Creedence tapes” in his car. The first song, “Run Through The Jungle” is played during the hand-off with the nihilists in The Dude’s car [33:13], and we assume it is non-diegetic as at this point, as we do not know that The Dude is a Creedence fan, or that he owns any of their records. The later revelation that he has some in his car implies that perhaps this music may have been diegetic, and that it was playing in the car. In fact, when the second Creedence song is playing, “Lookin’ Out My Back Door” [1:02:34], it is once again in The Dude’s car, but is this time undeniably diegetic, with The Dude even banging his roof in rhythm to it. But, unlike the other signature songs, where their involvement in the introduction, or in a key scene, of their respective characters is what implies that the song is representative of them, in The Dude’s case, Creedence becomes his signature music because it is frequently mentioned in the dialogue of the film. So, by the time, we see The Dude listen to it in his car, we are already aware of his ownership of Creedence tapes, and his attitude towards them. The representation here is part of his character, it does not represent him as much as it is part of him. The diegetic song is similar to the German techno pop to represent the nihilists – it is mentioned in the dialogue, and is part of their character within the film, rather than helping the audience identify the characters as part of the film. Much like “Tumbling Tumbleweeds”, “Lookin’ Out My Back Door” follows Kassabian’s definition in that it references an earlier musical event, but unlike that example, does not repeat it, and is in fact in a completely different context. In this way, it cannot be referred to as a leitmotif, as we only identify it with the character through non-musical devices, and the music itself has no repetition of melody or themes – it is a completely different song. It is still representative of a character, but in an entirely different way.
But, of course, Creedence is not the only thing we see The Dude listen to. In fact there are several diegetic songs, from the early-mid 70s, that appear. Captain Beefheart, Santana, and most notably Bob Dylan’s “The Man In Me”. This is one of the few songs, along with “Tumbling Tumbleweed” that repeats, but unlike the previous example, the Dylan song is repeated in its entirety, not just a small snippet. However, “The Man In Me” does not seem to be a signature song for any of the characters. Its first appearance is very early on in the film; it plays over a montage of several shots from the bowling alley, where much of the film is set [5:23]. Its second appearance occurs in the first of the film’s “dream sequences” [28:33], where The Dude follows Maude through the sky, before being caught in the hole of a giant bowling ball. Since both instances of the song are accompanied by bowling imagery, it could be used to represent the importance of bowling in the film, but there are many images of bowling throughout, and the song itself has little, if anything, to do with bowling. Lisa Donald puts forth the theory that the song is about The Dude’s relationship with Maude. “The woman that gets through the Jeff Lebowski (A.K.A. The Dude) is Maude Lebowski” (2006), says Donald, referring to the line in the song “Takes a woman like you to get through to the man in me” (Dylan, 1970). This, while interesting, seems slightly farfetched, as the first instance of the song accompanies no images of Maude or The Dude, and the second is shown at the end of the sequence to be playing on The Dude’s headphones while unconscious. Therefore, it is unlikely that the song represents a character, or is even representative of anything at all, and its use in the film is for a different reason to the songs discussed previously.
So, as we can see from the last example, this musical representation is ambiguous and, ultimately, not definitive. We know The Dude is represented by Creedence because the Coen brothers have said so, but the average viewer, who perhaps would not have heard them say this, could disagree entirely. Another issue is that many of the main character, such as Walter, Donny and the other Jeffrey Lebowski, do not have any sort of musical representation, and while we would not expect every character to have a signature song, these characters have much larger and important parts than that of, say, Jesus or Jackie Treehorn, who are represented musically. Through analysis of these songs, we can see that the only one that can be considered a leitmotif is “Tumbling Tumbleweeds”, and even that is debatable, due to it being a repeating song, and not a theme in a score. The rest of the songs, while not leitmotifs, serve a similar purpose – to define and represent a character, and perhaps, due to the audience’s preconception of meaning that often comes with popular songs, they are more effective than scored leitmotifs. Of course, if that theory is used, then we must keep in mind that the audience could have different preconceptions than expected. As Kassabian puts it, “they bring the immediate threat of history” (2001, p. 3). However, the songs were picked for the (mostly) “retro” era they were released in (Ciment & Niogret, 1998, p. 107), which is something that is quite consistent from viewer to viewer. Interestingly, when the soundtrack to the film was released on CD, most of the signature songs that have been discussed were included, but “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” and the two Creedence songs were not (Various Artists, 1998). This strange omission only adds to the ambiguity, and makes us question whether these songs are as significant as we think. Either way, for this viewer at least, their use in the movie is not only innovative, but invaluable representing and defining the characters, making for a very interesting, enjoyable and well-chosen soundtrack throughout, and while the music, under heavy analysis, is quite dissimilar to the leitmotif, it does, in fact, perform a very similar, if not identical, function.
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