Welcome to Soundtrack Tuesdays here at Upcoming on Screen. Every Tuesday we will review a soundtrack of a film in the past (hopefully we will get to review future soundtracks when films start coming out in cinemas again). But for now, we are going back in time. This week we are looking back at Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’s soundtrack for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.
Some may see this as an odd choice to start off this series with but I will merely say that I thought that if I was going to review a soundtrack that I would start with the one that I have a great amount of love for. Of course, over time I will go to scores I have not fully listened to, but for our opening salvo, why not go with the one you enjoy. Simple reasoning no?
We start the film at the tail end of the James Gang and obviously of Jesse’s life. All of his and his gangs past appear to be catching up with Jesse and the rope around the gang is tightening from law enforcement. With that haunting feeling shrouding him and his gang, the score by Nick Cave and Bad Seeds comrade Warren Ellis is suitably apt. The overriding sense of dread and death is spread throughout this minimalist score. Notes held for slightly longer than usual, much like scenes within the film where pauses and stares are given between characters. Giving the score even more cause to be felt.
The repetitive nature within the tracks also accentuates the sense of doom, coupled with these long notes, we are in no doubt that death or at the least closure is forthcoming. Occasionally we hear scores that almost try to take over the film, they become noticeable. Not here from Cave and Ellis, the score is used when needed and for large chunks of the film, there is, in fact, no score. We are forced to focus on the characters and their actions, or even inactions. The score enters the film when truly required. I would liken it to the Joker score, where minimalism was the key and what made the score and thus the film work so well.
Song for Jesse is plainly how Bob views Jesse as a mesmerising fantasy hero, a dream. This track reprises a few times throughout the film because of how strong Bob’s feelings towards Jesse are. Yet the more Bob sees Jesse for who he really is, not the hero or visionary that he lauded so greatly, but a man who will do anything to survive, the fewer we hear the track, until upon Jesse’s death it is gone, no sparkle or joy can be found anymore, that is only reserved from basking on the glory of your hero from afar for Bob.
Where Song for Jesse is light a Song for Bob is dark and mournful, Bob has lost his love for Jesse and in himself. It also perfectly encapsulates the life of Bob during the time we see him throughout the film. As the track opens, we are presented with a little bit of hope clinging on there. Then the strings come into play and it is positively melancholic. A new world is opening for Bob and he still has options within his life that he can take. But the longer the strings play with no addition, we realise this is his fate. Cave’s piano highlights this decision with its every so gentle play.
He has hopes that his decision will take him to greater, better heights. But this is just a lie he can tell himself. The soft bass joining the strings helps to solidify this fact. His decision has caused time to come calling for him sooner than he needed. This path was the long one and now all of the pieces become one as they play poor Bob out in his final lonely years. Death is coming and he knows it. As the film states in the ending narration, there is no fanfare or interest in his demise. He is just gone, yet never fully forgotten. Just a regretful bookmark around Jesse’s life. This track is absolutely perfect for the narration.
If you ever get the opportunity to listen to the extra 5 tracks that were not a part of the original soundtrack, then they are essential listening. Song for Charley is as mournful as a song can be, there is no hope what so ever within the song. Charley’s fate was always doomed. We never see any upside to anything he does. He is merely there as back up to kill Jesse. To tag along with Bob and even has to cope with a long and horrible illness. He never had a chance and the song typifies that. Mary’s Song is another oddly not included in the 14 track release. Whether it was too hopeful in comparison to the other tracks is a possible answer. It is a beautiful song however and is found in the end credits. In fact, all of the additional tracks would have still perfectly fit into the original release, such are the talents of our composers, that we can even lament the tracks not present to us.
Instead of a typically loud and boisterous score, we are now accustomed to in Westerns. We have a score that takes that step back and tells the audience that there are no true heroes. Just broken people who meet and become more broken with every action that they take. We are mourning and Nick Cave and Warren Ellis created that perfectly.