TV Show vs. Movie: The Music of Fargo

By  · Published on May 29th, 2015

FX Networks

“There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don’tcha know that? And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day. Well. I just don’t understand it.” – Marge Gunderson

Marge (who’s perfect mid-western accent is delivered by Frances McDormand) may not understand why money is so important to some people, but Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thorton) sure seems to. Fargo, the now iconic film from Joel and Ethan Cohen, ends with Marge saying these words to the one of criminals she has been pursuing throughout the film, discrediting his motives in the simple and pragmatic way only Marge could. But when FX brought the world of Fargo to the small screen last year, they also brought with it a much more dangerous and unpredictable villain in the form of Malvo.

The series doesn’t pick up right where the film left off, but the snow covered scenery filled with characters to love (Allison Tolman’s Molly Solverson) and ones to get incredibly frustrated by (Martin Freeman’s Lester Nygaard) is classic Fargo. The show is a true homage to its film predecessor in not just the story elements or the now iconic Minnesota speak, but the unmistakable feeling of a narrative that greets you with a smile on its face, before punching you in the gut.

Fargo may be best remembered for its quotable lines and its character’s good (and very bad) natures, but the distinct feeling of the film— the one that ranges from terrifying to hilarious to gosh-darn sweet – is thanks to the film’s composer, Carter Burwell.

Burwell establishes this feeling from the first frame of the film as he lets the unassuming violin refrain give way to bold orchestration, making it clear this is an epic tale, albeit one with slightly odd aspects to it this is a Cohen brother’s film after all).

A film opening to a big orchestra is nothing new, but Burwell sets Fargo apart by mixing in the unexpected use of sleigh bells (something usually associated with Christmas and good cheer). Seeing a blanket of white snow and hearing sleigh bells makes sense, but Burwell turned them into something ominous by usually having them play before a violent altercation. This is a trait Jeff Russo (the series composer) carried over into the show and is what helps give both the film and the series its distinctly cheery, yet off-putting, feel.

Russo wisely selected elements like the sleigh bells, the full orchestral swells, and the jaunty feeling of the film and incorporated them into the series, but he peppers these influences in, never fully relying on them. The series’ first episode opens in similar fashion to the film, almost a “wink” to Fargo fans, but the opening varies after that ranging from wild drums to a placed song like The Carter Family’s “Wildwood Flower” (which opens the fifth episode). These changing openings usually hint at what is to come in the episode and work to keep viewers on their toes (especially when watching all episodes in succession).

Burwell created a consistent and recognizable sound in Fargo, but he also had fun with it (Fargo is a dark comedy after all) by letting his score take on aspects of other genres as the story spun on. Burwell’s score would get bit more action/adventure sounding during a car chase or take on elements of a horror film during the kidnapping/ransom exchange. While there are certainly comedic moments in the series, it is a much darker descent as we spend more time with some of these more concerning characters.

The “bad guys” in the film, Carl (Steve Buscemi) and Gaear (Peter Stormare), added to the comedy because they were completely inept, but unlike Carl, Gaear had no problem racking up a serious body count. Unfortunately when paired with Carl’s incompetence, it off-set any of his terror. I’m sure if we peeled back the layers on Gaear we would find a very dark and disturbed man (I mean he had no problem putting his accomplice in a wood chipper, for gosh sakes), but a film telling a tight cat-and-mouse story doesn’t allow for that kind of deep character exploration. But the series does. And it gives us it in the form of Malvo.

Malvo is surrounded by equally bumbling idiots, but he capitalizes on their idiocy and in doing so makes him far more devious and deadly. Russo hones in on this feeling by utilizing more ominous instrumentation in his score, keeping it as the ever present underbelly of the story. Fargo the series is a darker tale emphasized by the way the scenes are under lit to the characters (Molly is as good natured as Marge, but she is also a bit more cynical) and Russo helps take viewers down this darker path by turning to an orchestra based in Eastern Europe. Russo told Film Music Magazine, “The idea was to sound cold and lonesome and yet retain the emotion. To really underscore the beauty of the landscape and its contradiction to the evil ugly nature of Lorne Malvo and Lester’s descent into evil.”

In the film, when Carl and Gaear get pulled over there are three different elements at play: Carl claiming he has things under control, Gaear chomping at the bit to make things happen, oh, and a kidnapped wife whimpering in the backseat. Burwell plays up the intensity of this scene with foreboding music that keep you on the edge of your seat while still not knowing which way the scene is going to play out.

In the series, Malvo also gets pulled over, but there is only one element at play (Malvo) and Russo smartly keeps the music to at bay, knowing pure silence would better amplify the tension. Malvo is an intense character, but he is also unpredictable. Gaear could never relate to Carl’s more erratic personality, but Malvo can be anyone he wants (or needs) to be in any given moment. Russo holds the music back until the moment Malvo pushes things a bit further and even then the music is nothing more than a restrained, low beat that works to slightly shift the scene from a polite conversation to threatening standoff.

Things in the series unravel just as quickly as they did in the movie, but it is a much slower burn with much more devious characters at play. Where Burwell would tend to get more jaunty, Russo instead sticks to the dark corners and lets his score pulsate underneath the surface. This Fargo make look and sound familiar, but it is a far more treacherous playing field.

Taking a beloved film like Fargo and turning it into a television series is a delicate task and the show’s creators were able to do so successfully by understanding the true nature of the film and letting it influence the show without outright copying it. Music is always the subconscious passenger that should never be completely noticeable, but (when done well) should leave a lasting impact. Russo’s score works as an extension of Burwell’s score, but one that takes audiences into a much darker, more sinister world than the one we left Marge (and her lovable husband Norm) in.

Marge may not have understood Gaear’s motivations, but thanks to Malvo, those beautiful Fargo days seem like they are (sadly) becoming numbered.

You can get caught up on Season 1 of Fargo on Amazon Prime and Fargo is the film is currently streaming on Netflix. Season 2 of Fargo returns to FX this fall.