Robert Altman’s turn of the century north-western, McCabe & Mrs Miller (1971), reached back all the way to 1967 and pulled in three tracks from Leonard Cohen’s debut: ‘The Stranger Song’, ‘Sisters of Mercy’ and ‘Winter Lady’. The trio of tunes are the sum total of the non-diegetic music in the film. In the film’s story a good deal of fiddle music is featured, including a lovely scene of a guy dancing on a frozen river, a large music box with interchangeable discs, which looks like a proto jukebox, is heard, and unaccompanied singing all add to the soundtrack. Against the anachronism of Cohen’s music, Stephen Foster’s ‘Beautiful Dreamer’ gets at least two outings; by my ready reckoner it is a song heard in westerns more than any other tune.
For a set of pre-existing songs, the fit with the film’s themes is remarkable, but then Cohen always dug deep into exploring emotional attachments that last just a small moment in time and that’s what the film covers too. ‘The Stranger Song’ is given to McCabe, the character played by Warren Beatty, ‘Sisters of Mercy’ accompanies images of the hamlet’s prostitutes, and ‘Winter Lady’ follows around Mrs Constance Miller (Julie Christie). It is said that Altman originally played around with at least 10 of Cohen’s songs before deciding on these three. He clearly worked to put song and image together in an arrangement that was mutually beneficial. In this he succeeds; it is impossible to imagine the film without Cohen’s sonorous odes to fleeting love. But the songs also fix the film to 1967-1971. It cannot escape that history any more than Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid can leave behind Sacha Distel and ‘Raindrops Keep Falling’, or High Noon can forsake Tex Ritter, such is the genre’s relationship with the past and the present.
Three songs and some incidental music was obviously not enough to fashion an OST from, or to repackage Cohen’s album, but CBS in the UK did see potential in offering the market an EP.
This concise artefact is part of the same series that featured Kris Kristofferson’s tunes used in Cisco Pike (see earlier entry). Where there anymore in the set? Do tell if you know . . .