The Big Lebowski is a ”period” picture, but if you can’t recall which period, don’t kick yourself. Though the Coen brothers’ comedy noir is set in the early ’90s, its principals all exist in states of emotional arrest dating back to before the Bush era — from the porn director living out a sordid space-age bachelor-pad fantasy to the feminist painter whose avant-gardisms are already dated, to most obviously, Jeff Bridges’ Dude, an aging stoner whose passion for bowling is surpassed only by his love for Creedence. For the film’s ultra-eclectic soundtrack (recently released on Mercury Records), ”we were trying to find signature songs for each of the characters,” says writer-producer Ethan Coen, ”so the only thing [the songs] share is that nothing is particularly contemporary sounding. They’re all from previous eras, consistent with the characters, who had attitudes shaped by the ’60s, ’70s, or earlier.” Don’t look for much ”classic rock,” though: Theirs is a particularly slippery nostalgia.
Lebowski’s approach differs sharply from, say Boogie Nights, whose song score served as Greek chorus. ”I didn’t want to use anything that commented specifically on the people or looked down on or really stood outside of them,” says producer T Bone Burnett, the Coens’ ”music archivist.” ”It was, ‘What does Dude put on just after he’s made love?’ He’d come in, smoke a J, do a little tai chi, have a White Russian, listen to Captain Beefheart. That’s a man after my own heart,” Burnett laughs. ”Someone I can look up to.”
Burnett ”has such a wide and deep knowledge of music,” notes writer-director Joel Coen, ”he brought in a lot of the less obvious stuff, like Yma Sumac, Meredith Monk, and this track from an Italian soft-core porn music album.” Bridges, the Coens recall, pitched the equally obscure Moondog; Elvis Costello — who contributed the lone new tune — suggested a Korngold opera excerpt, too. But the Coens had several numbers already written into their script, including Bob Dylan’s little-remembered ”The Man in Me” and Kenny Rogers’ pre-country ”Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In),” which accompanies Dude’s drug-induced dream sequence — a Busby Berkeley number replete with bowling-pin-headed chorus girls.
The bros’ humor resonates around a sense of slight displacement, which carries over to music choices. ”The idea of using a song that’s recognizable, but a version which is much more obscure, had the right feeling to us,” says Joel, referring to the Gipsy Kings’ Spanglish version of ”Hotel California” and Townes Van Zandt’s take on the Stones’ ”Dead Flowers.” The goal was to allude to living in the past while avoiding material that was too identifiably Me Decade. ”I don’t have a lot of desire to sort of reinvent the ’70s, as a lot of these soundtracks are doing, or to republicize them,” explains Burnett. ”I think the ’70s have already gotten enough publicity.” Tell it to the Dude.