Jesse Ulmer

Date of Award

Spring 5-2017

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Thomas J. Slater, Ph.D.

Second Advisor

Reena Dube, Ph.D.

Third Advisor

Michael T. Williamson, Ph.D.


This dissertation examines the use of popular music in the films of Joel and Ethan Coen, more popularly known as the “Coen brothers.” To date, the films of the Coens have been analyzed from a wide variety of scholarly approaches, including postmodernism, independent film, genre theory, and cultural studies. However, an extended, in-depth study of popular music in Coen films—a standout yet consistently overlooked feature of their auterism—has yet to conducted, an important gap addressed by this dissertation. I argue that the use of popular music deserves to be, along with other aspects like dynamic camerawork, ornate dialogue, and genre play, considered a definitive feature of Coen brothers films. The particular way in the Coens handle the music of their films goes well beyond the Hollywood norm, becoming something of a “bespoke” or “curatorial” kind of approach to film music. The depth and breadth of this approach situates the Coens as “auteur melomanes,” Claudia Gorbman’s term for music loving American film directors that include Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Woody Allen, and Spike Lee.

The brothers’ cinematic oeuvre showcases an astonishing array of musical genres that tracks through nearly every arena of American popular music, including country, rock, bluegrass, R&B, blues, gospel, hip-hop, modern and traditional folk, and jazz, among others. Rather than relegating music to a background, secondary role in their films, Coen films show how songs can be woven into the very fabric of the story, situating it as a powerful creative strategy for narrative feature-filmmaking. While it is often argued by critics that the Coens have nothing serious to say, that their films rarely rise above a kind of playful, self-indulgent formalism, I argue in this dissertation that a close, systematic examination of the popular music of Coen films reveals a high degree of density and complexity of textual function and meaning. The music serves basic narrative purposes like character and setting, but also operates on more sophisticated levels by developing a tonal complexity that blurs the line between ironic and sincere forms of cinematic address.