Carter Burwell - 'True Grit'

What music should accompany a 14-year-old girl bent on avenging her father’s murder in the Old West? “I thought that hymns, or music that sounded like hymns, would remind you that what’s driving the whole story is a biblical sense of righteousness,” says composer Carter Burwell of “True Grit.”

Joel and Ethan Coen’s remake of the 1969 Western — replacing John Wayne’s iconic performance with Jeff Bridges as the eyepatch-wearing Rooster Cogburn — also marks their 15th collaboration with Burwell, who started with them 26 years ago on “Blood Simple.”

He didn’t look at the old film or listen to its classic Elmer Bernstein score. Rather, before the Coens went off to shoot the film, they discussed the idea of using 19th-century church music — preferably “something that was severe (sounding). It couldn’t be soothing or uplifting, and at the same time it couldn’t be outwardly depressing. I spent the summer going through hymn books,” he says.

They settled on the 1877 tune “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” as young Mattie’s theme, and about a fourth of the score is based on it. Other hymns are also referenced in the score, including “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”

Burwell’s New York orchestra totaled as many as 65 players, mostly for what the composer calls “blatantly Western movie moments,” such as river crossings and Cogburn’s big shootout. But there is also considerable solo piano. “We tried to keep it pretty spare,” Burwell says. “Most of it — typical of my writing for Joel and Ethan’s films — is a little restrained.”

The Burwell-Coen method is unlike the standard Hollywood process; there is no “temp” score for Burwell to follow. “I started writing at the same time that Joel and Ethan started cutting,” he says. “We did it in parallel. I was able to send them music, and they could cut to the music; then they would send me the new cut and I would write to that. There was a lot of back-and-forth.”


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