‘The Ladykillers’ and the Critics

It’s with great trepidation that I say something that may offend.  Let me apologize, in advance and profoundly, if that’s the case.  I know I’ll have to live with this for the rest of my life.  This said, here ’tis: I like blues and gospel music.  More than this, I prefer African-American blues and gospel music.

I don’t know why this is, but I’m pretty sure it isn’t because I’m biased against whites.  I think it could be because it sounds good.  Anyhow, I was powerfully reminded of this, and other things, when I caught AMC’s premiere last month of the remake of the 1950s British comedy classic, “The Ladykillers.”

Directed by the Coen brothers, Ethan and Joel, and starring Tom Hanks, the American version had its U.S. theatrical debut in 2004, and has since been dubbed “one of the best Tom Hanks films you’ve never seen.”

For those not familiar with the British version starring Alec Guinness, of which the Coens’ film is a “retelling,” “The Ladykillers” is the story of a band of ne’er-do-wells who, in the guise of a “classic music ensemble,” rent a basement flat that abuts the counting room of a nearby riverboat casino.  The group’s intention is to tunnel into the casino’s vault, under cover of the (recorded) sound of their instruments in practice.

So that’s the storyline.  But the point here isn’t so much to provide a review as it is to register a few paragraphs in criticism of how a film as good as this could go six years before most people had even heard of it.

A lot of the problem, I think, has to do with the reviewers.  Reading now what they wrote then raises the question: Who are these people?  Even accounting for the fact that their reviews were of the theatrical version, and not the edited one shown on AMC, it’s almost beyond belief that most were so negative and that virtually none of them even mentioned the music.

This omission is remarkable because “The Ladykillers” is filled, not just on the soundtrack but also on camera, by fabulous gospel singing.  Sung by such as the Soul Stirrers, Rose Stone (sister of Sly), The Venice Four, and the Abbot Kinney Lighthouse Choir, featured performances include rousing renditions of “Trouble of This World” and “Let the Light From the Lighthouse Shine on Me.”

Credit for the inclusion of these groups belongs to T-Bone Burnett, who was the music producer on “The Ladykillers” and also on the earlier Coen brothers’ production, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

Never mind for a minute the joy of seeing Tom Hanks as you’ve never seen him before, or a spot-on performance by Irma P. Hall; the music in this production is among its most prominent features, and for reviewers to have ignored it completely says much more about them than anything they have to say about the movie.

It’s always a risky thing to attempt a remake of a classic, but it’s made nearly impossible when, as here, the reviewers are tone deaf.


The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not necessarily of The Media Institute, its Board, contributors, or advisory councils.