Given what audacious, far-ranging, and sensually intoxicated filmmakers they are, Joel and Ethan Coen have never shown much of a rock & roll side. Okay, there was The Big Lebowski (1998), that deadbeat-soul-of-Los Angeles stoner cult classic. It was sprinkled with Dylan, Creedence, and Elvis, and it had that one goofily farfetched moment of surreal jukebox rapture: a druggy dream sequence, set to Kenny Rogers’ 1968 hit “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In),” that was like Busby Berkeley on peyote at the bowling alley. I saw The Big Lebowski again recently, and sorry, I’m still not wild about it (I think it’s more arduous than inspired), but what that sequence indicates to me is that the Coens should seriously consider making a gloriously skewed pop musical.
I’m more convinced of that than ever having seen the spectacular use they make of the Jefferson Airplane song “Somebody to Love” in A Serious Man. This is one of those pop-music epiphanies worthy of Tarantino, Scorsese, or Paul Thomas Anderson — and the strange thing is, it’s just there, so unlikely yet so sublime, sitting right in the middle of the Coens’ highly personalized movie about a nebbishy Jewish family trying to make its way in Middle America in 1967.
A Serious Man opens with an old Yiddish parable (a fake, it turns out — the Coens just made it up), in which a kvetching couple in what looks like a 19th century Eastern European village invite an old man into their home who may or may not be a dybbuk (i.e., a malevolent spirit). This prologue introduces the movie’s grand theme — which is not, as many critics have said, an update of the Book of Job. Rather, the theme is a question: When bad things happen, are they the actions of God, or are they the result of people anxiously overreacting to what God does?
At this point the screen goes dark, and we see what looks like a golden ring, which is the outline of a mysterious tunnel that we’re suddenly whooshing through. The whole audience is traveling — through space? time? — with nothing to guide it but a familiar, gathering sound. It’s the thrashing ’60s beat and desperate, do-or-die romantic ferocity of Grace Slick, exhorting her listeners to find “somebody to love” in a world where that may be the only salvation left.
Here’s a taste of the song’s rapture:
So what, exactly, is a vintage Jefferson Airplane anthem doing in this movie? In A Serious Man, the Coens use “Somebody to Love” in two fascinating and resonant ways. When we first come out of that tunnel, we’re staring at a hard white piece of plastic — it’s a close-up of an earpiece, plugged into the head of 12-year-old Danny (Aaron Wolff), who is listening to “Somebody to Love” on his transistor radio in Hebrew school. What’s more than a bit trippy is that as the camera travels down that earpiece wire, it seems to be completing the journey out of the tunnel. In what is basically a realistic drama, the Coens present the leap from the peasant shtetl to the tract-house anonymity of Midwestern America as an act of science fiction. It’s as if the Jews of the old world weren’t just being transplanted — they were getting beamed up. The movie uses “Somebody to Love” as the sensuous electric pulse of the society they were now joining. And yet…it’s science fiction because, in some part of their hearts, they’re still in the shtetl. They’re in two worlds at once.
Late in the film, the song comes back — this time as high comedy. Danny has just completed his bar mitzvah (while stoned out of his gourd), and as a reward he gets an audience with the community’s chief rabbi, an ancient, wizened wizard of a Talmudic scholar who sits in his room like a Yiddishe mafioso, surrounded by musty texts and eerie things in bottles. The inaccessibility of the rabbi has been a joke throughout the film (Danny’s father, who could use some guidance, can’t begin to get a meeting), and so our curiosity about what he’ll finally say has reached the boiling point. Slowly, in his thick accent, the old man begins to speak, mouthing what sounds like it could only be a centuries-old Jewish proverb:
“Ven da truth is found…to be lies. And all da joy…vithin you dies.”
Yes, it’s the lyrics of “Somebody to Love.” Except that the rabbi, instead of voicing the song’s next line (“Don’t you want somebody to love?”), substitutes his own, more existential version. He asks: ”What then?”
Watching this moment, the audience, as it should, giggles in recognition. Yet the meaning of the song shines through with a new and peculiar beauty. According to A Serious Man, what those simple lines from a famous ’60s pop song describe, with despairing perfection (the truth revealed to be lies, the joy within you dying), is the condition of Jews in the modern, assimilated world. According to the movie, the deepest truths of their faith no longer hold; the joy of their path to transcendence has been dashed. And so…what then? That’s the question that Danny and his father must ask themselves. The rabbi has no answer. But the real answer, according to Joel and Ethan Coen, is…well, I can’t say it any better than Jefferson Airplane. And neither, apparently, could they.