The Man Who Wasn't There
Decca Records, 2001
REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 11/22/2001
It's no secret that I'm more of a music person than a film person. Part of this is just a matter of time; I can easily listen to CDs while I work, but it's real hard to write code and watch a film at the same time. Part of it is financial - namely, I don't see motion picture companies scrambling to get my butt into advance screenings. And part of it is just pure preference; I really have to be interested in a movie to give up two hours and about ten dollars.
So it may not surprise you that I have no opinion one way or the other about filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen. But I can tell from the few images I've seen of their latest film The Man Who Wasn't There that this is a darker film noir than moviegoers of this day and age are probably used to. This opinion is further bolstered by the soundtrack featuring snippets of some of the most beautiful selections of classical music ever to be penned - if only the full pieces had been highlighted.
The overall vibe of this soundtrack - both from the classical pieces and newer selections penned by Carter Burwell - is gloomy and introspective. It's a potentially dangerous approach, seeing how the average Joe Consumer wants to feel good when it comes to music. But this approach works incredibly well with the mood this picture is supposed to set - so much so, in fact, that the one up-tempo number, "Nirdlinger's Swing," sounds out of place with the rest of the soundtrack. (Burwell does capture the feel of big-band swing well with this particular selection; any other disc, and it would be a highlighted track.)
The classical pieces selected for The Man Who Wasn't There are, in a word, brilliant. If memory serves me right, "Che soave zeffiretto," pulled from Mozart's The Marriage Of Figaro, was featured in the movie The Shawshank Redemption. Now, I absolutely, positively hate opera - I mean, with a vengeance. That being said, this particular selection always sends chills up my spine with its absolute beauty, capturing an essence that modern-day composers have never been able to grasp. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was an absolute genius; listen to this selection and try to disprove my statement.
The piano selections from Ludwig Van Beethoven are just as stunning, but their power is usurped a little bit by editing. The selection "Birdy's 'Pathetique'" takes part of the best-known selection from Beethoven's "Piano Sonata No. 8 In C minor Op. 13" and does it the injustice of shortening it to fit a particular mood. (In defense of the soundtrack's producers, the entire selection is performed later on the disc.) Let's call The Man Who Wasn't There a "sampler" of Beethoven's works; chances are, once you hear the snippets from his piano sonatas and the piano trio, you'll want to hear the entire pieces for yourself.
I can't say I'm totally comfortable with the way that Burwell's music almost segues with itself and the classical pieces; you have to be paying attention to the CD display to be absolutely certain at times when one piece has ended and another has begun. But all in all, this is a well-crafted disc that is less of a vehicle to promote the film than it is a disc of mood music which could well spark interest in some of the most beautiful selections of classical music. No disrespect is meant towards Burwell, as his pieces help to secure that the dark mood of the film is kept alive in its score. But the true stars of this soundtrack are the classical pieces, and they're well worth your time.