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'True Grit': A New Score From Old, Familiar Tunes

True Grit has been nominated for 10 Academy Awards this year, including Best Picture. But one category from which it's notably absent is Best Original Score. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences disqualified the score because it uses familiar music — in this case hymns.

The score for the film, which was produced and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, was written by their longtime collaborator, Carter Burwell. This isn't Burwell's first experience creating a score ineligible for an Oscar nomination. Earlier in 2010, he scored the film The Kids Are All Right, which was disqualified because the Academy felt there were too many songs in the film distracting from the score.

"They have a variety of rules, and I've talked to them about it, because I've crossed the line many, many times," Burwell tells Weekend All Things Considered guest host Linda Wertheimer. "In the case of True Grit, they say there was a time when scores based on familiar tunes — in particular Broadway tunes — kept winning. And they felt that was really not fair, so they created this rule that said you couldn't have a score based on pre-existing music."

While True Grit is a Western, Burwell didn't focus solely on the type of music people typically associate with that genre. Instead, he threaded references to 19th-century hymns into the score. He explains the reasoning behind it by citing the original book by Charles Portis, which emphasizes the narrative voice of the protagonist, Mattie Ross, and reveals a strong religious influence.

"The movie is not narrated in her voice, except for a little bit at the beginning and a little bit at the end. I felt that it would help to remind you why she's doing what she's doing if the score, which is there all the time, was reminding you of her church background."

In creating the score, Burwell immersed himself in these old hymns, finding favorites such as "Talk About Suffering." This work found its way into a montage in the middle of the film, but Burwell says it's not always easy to decide where the songs will go.

"Sometimes, a scene has basically been created for the purpose of holding music. But sometimes it's subtle, and especially since we did No Country for Old Men, we've learned to respect the idea of silence and respect the importance of not having music in areas where perhaps otherwise you would have it."

Burwell and the Coen brothers exercised more of this restraint in scoring True Grit. In the scene where Mattie Ross gets bitten by a poisonous snake and appears to be in grave danger, Burwell says they chose to make a less obvious musical decision.

"In a moment where in many other films, perhaps, you would want music that suggested urgency or suggested action, we go exactly the opposite direction and play that solo piano, 'Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.' ... We want you to pause and think about where she is and the experience she's having."

Creative License

Burwell also took creative license with the hymns, such as transforming "Hold to God's Unchanging Hand" from its original upbeat form to give it a Western tinge — an air of hopelessness, as was appropriate to fit the film's narrative arc.

" 'Hold to God's Unchanging Hand,' that's a warm, upbeat hymn — very affirming," Burwell says. "And we use it that way when Mattie is leaving town and going on her mission. The next scene, she's crossing the river on horseback. It's very dangerous, and people don't ... think she's capable of doing it. I restate that theme, but now it's more like a Western. It's brass, it's timpani. It's about the impossibility of what she's doing."

But this theme carries over to represent the growth and shape of the relationship between Mattie and Rooster Cogburn, played by Jeff Bridges.

"This theme was chosen to basically play their relationship," Burwell says. "So here, this is the first time they are being drawn together. You can kind of see in his eyes; he's developing respect for her courage. The other end of the film, when she's been bitten by a snake and ... he's carrying her across this barren, moonlit landscape, I go back to that hymn, to 'Hold to God's Unchanging Hand,' but it can't be affirming — in fact, his situation's almost hopeless."

Although it won't win him Best Original Score at the Oscars, Burwell says he finds twisting and reshaping familiar tunes to fit a narrative to be one of the most rewarding aspects of scoring a film.

"This is one of the most enjoyable musicological jobs for me," he says, "to take this very upbeat, very positive hymn and fill it now with hopelessness and make it more complex emotionally."

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