He may not be a Coen brother by blood, but “Inside Llewyn Davis” makes it clear once again that T-Bone Burnett and the acclaimed sibling filmmakers share a distinct musical DNA.
For the rich, authentic-feeling music that fills the soundtrack of their latest film, set in the world of the early, pre-Bob Dylan folk music scene emerging in New York’s Greenwhich Village in the early 1960s, writer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen turned again to their frequent collaborator Burnett. “I think he was the first person that we sent the script to when it was done,” recalls Ethan Coen.
Sounds shaped by Burnett – a veteran musician and Grammy Award-winning producer who’s overseen albums for the likes of Alison Krause and Robert Plant, Elvis Costello, Roy Orbison, John Mellencamp and Cassandra Wilson – have become a fixture among movie soundtracks. His first work with the Coens was as the “music archivist” of “The Big Lebowski,” picking and securing the rights to songs for the film. This led to his production of the bluegrass music of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” a commercial and critical sensation. Burnett provided the soundtrack and score for the Johnny Cash biopic “Walk the Line” and helped stars Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon develop their vocal performances.
“We've known T-Bone for 25 years and done four movies with him,” says Joel Coen. “You're just looking for collaborators in general who you understand their point of view, and they understand your point of view – and there isn't a lot of fuss, and that temperamentally you're compatible. And T-Bone was, obviously, just for all the other reasons brilliant at what he does. He has ... really interesting skills as both a producer of music and someone who can work with actors who are not necessarily musicians in terms of eliciting those kinds of results that you see in this movie.”
“They called, they have a very clear, simple view,” recalls Burnett of the initial pitch from the brothers as they described the early-era folk world of the film. “[They said] ‘We want to do it with real songs but made-up people and we want to do it all live, with all live performances.’ And that was it!” That’s the foundation for the whole movie. That’s their pitch. They didn’t go in and give the history [of the music] from the Civil War or anything – I gave them that later,” he chuckles.
“People know about the sex, drugs and rock and roll in the 60s because rock and roll was big, commercial music – It had a big audience,” says Ethan Coen. “This kind of music is really kind of for cultists…Folk like these people were practicing, it was just a smaller scene. A small, in a way isolated community.”
“Which in a way was interesting to us to set a movie in it,” adds Joel Coen. “If it's more exotic, it just makes it that much more interesting to get into and say, 'Well, this would be an interesting context for a story' because people don't really know so much about either the music or what was going on.”
The film follows aspiring singer-songwriter Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) as he frequently ethically and morally comprises himself in order to survive and get a toehold in the music business. Burnett says he had an immediate take on the existing folk songs he wanted to tap for the film.
“It wasn’t ‘the soundtrack of my life’ or anything like that, but it was around at that time,” he remembers. “This music would get on the radio because there was a scene developing. There was no scene and then some troubadours went around, blazed some paths, and invented a scene that eventually became Elvis Presley on one end of it and then Bob Dylan on the other – there was Woody Guthrie and all those people doing it that Dylan came through, and Elvis was in another line that didn’t have really access to Woody Guthrie somehow but he did have access to Howlin’ Wolf so he went that way."
Burnett worked with Mumford and Sons musician Marcus Mumford, whose wife Carey Mulligan also appears as a singer in the film, to mine for folk touchstones – including the English ballad “The Death of Queen Jane”; Hedy West’s oft-recorded 60s song “500 Miles” made popular by the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul and Mary; Dominic Behan’s Irish prison lament “The Auld Triangle”; Dylan’s obscure “Farewell” and the works of folk cult figure and towering influence Dave Van Rock, whose life also provided inspiration for the story.
The films actors, including Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, Adam Driver and Stark Sands, would be called upon to perform the songs both live and usually in their entirety, and the heaviest burden fell on Isaac as the lead.
“Here the tight-rope walk was that we had to find an actor who could play a difficult part, play a part of a character who is not trying to make you love him and you still had to love him,” says Burnett. “We wanted whole performances of songs so you got into his real life as a musician, which is where you really learn the most about the character, I think: in the songs. And then we had to do it live, documentary-style. So we saw a lot of people and I just thought it probably couldn’t happen. We’re going to have to find somebody and start lip-syncing and do it the normal way, which would have been a completely different movie – and would have taken all the fun out of it, really. The risk is what separates the artist from the artisan.”
“So here we are, like ‘Okay, let’s take the biggest risk we can because this is walking a tight rope without a net and without a rope,’” says Burnett. “This is just like levitating across the thing. And Oscar did it! And the Coens did it! And I was sitting there with a stopwatch making sure he wasn’t speeding up or slowing down. I had the most pedestrian job.”
Isaac respectfully disagrees with that assessment. “He completely changed the way, not only that I listen to music, but the way that I play music,” says the actor. “The first thing we did was that we went out to Tarzana, to Norm’s Rare Guitars, and we found Llewyn’s guitar, which is this guitar from 1924: it’s an L1, which is what rock ‘n’ roll was invited on – we joke that I made a very special deal with T-Bone – and then, he took me back to his home studio and the first thing he did was put on Tom Waits’ new record, and he left the room for an hour. He was the musical Mr. Miyagi. He was the invisible hand that was guiding me and never telling me what to sound like, but just stripping away any artifice.”