×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ Recalls Folk’s Age of Innocence

Produced by T Bone Burnett and the Coens, pic’s soundtrack leans on pre-Dylan traditional tunes

When it was revealed two years ago that the Coen brothers’ next project would revolve around the Greenwich Village folk scene of the early ’60s, the first thought that came to mind was “who’s going to play Dylan?” But Judas is only hinted at in the filmmakers’ prelapsarian world of troubadours, beat poets and their exploiters, if only as a harbinger of things to come.

Instead, as Variety’s Scott Foundas wrote in his Cannes review of “Inside Llewyn Davis,” being released Dec. 6 by CBS Films, “the Coens have again taken a real time and place and freely made it their own, drawing on actual persons and events for inspiration, but binding themselves only to their own bountiful imaginations.”

As T Bone Burnett, executive music producer on the film and co-producer with the Coens of the soundtrack, tells Variety: “This is about a time that is very much like the time we’ve been in — an interregnum when the old is dying but isn’t dead, and the new’s being born and isn’t born yet. And this movie ends on that moment, really, when the new is born.”

In other words, the bard behind “Blowin’ With the Wind” and “The Times They Are a-Changin’” hadn’t arrived on the scene yet. “Llewyn Davis’” title character, played by Oscar Isaac in what is surely a breakthrough role, is a hapless but gifted musician who never achieves the fame he envisions for himself. While he was inspired by folkie/bluesman Dave Van Ronk, he’s mostly a product of the Coens’ fanciful imagination, with a dash of Bob Dylan to give him a mercenary edge. (In one scene, Davis travels to Chicago in the hopes of being signed by “Bud Grossman,” played by F. Murray Abraham; in real life, Dylan was managed by the notoriously gruff Albert Grossman, also from the Windy City.)

The film’s title is a variation of the 1963 recording “Inside Dave Van Ronk,” and refers to Davis’ fictional first solo album, which appears destined to be relegated to the dustbin of musical arcana.

In “Chronicles,” Dylan’s memoir of his formative years, he describes Van Ronk as a singer who “could howl and whisper, turn blues into ballads and ballads into blues.” So when Isaac and Burnett initially met to talk about the music, recalls the actor, “the first thing (Burnett) did was just put on the new Tom Waits record and leave me in the room there for about an hour.” The exercise wasn’t inconceivable, given that Van Ronk’s guttural growl, as Isaac calls it, presaged Waits’ rough-grit vocals and beatnik sensibilities (witness Von Ronk’s 1982 recording of “St. James Infirmary”).

Isaac, who won the role over a number of accomplished actors and musicians, has been singing and playing guitar since his early teens — a plus for a project that required the actors to sing live during filming. Next to Van Ronk, he exhibits a comparatively honeyed voice, an authenticity that was encouraged by the Coens and Burnett.

Isaac refers to Burnett as “the musical Mr. Miyagi” (of “The Karate Kid” fame). He says the producer “never tells you what to do, he just tells you what to throw away.”

“He actually dropped this little bit of wisdom that unlocked not only the music for me but also the character,” adds Isaac. “This is really what stopped me from thinking that I should try to mimic a growl. I was playing a song and he said, ‘Sing it like you’re singing it to yourself.’ And that just registered so strongly, and that’s how I did the whole performance. (Davis) is going through this world, completely dislocated, and he just sings these things for himself.”

The soundtrack, recorded in analog, is filled with traditional songs, many passed down through generations, with stripped-down arrangements comprised of mostly string instruments, whether plucked, strummed or bowed. “The whole idea was that (Davis) just plays folk songs, old songs, traditional songs,” says Isaac, “which is part of his problem.”

That adherence to tradition is characteristic of the fleeting world the Coens attempted to capture. “Whereas Dylan is the poet,” explains Isaac, “this person was the workman. This isn’t the shooting star across the sky, this is the man coming up from the earth, trudging, always walking uphill, trying to be true to himself, but at the same time being hypocritical now and then, maneuvering in this strange netherworld where music was really shifting.”

The film’s one original composition, “Please Mr. Kennedy,” a protest song about the space race, foreshadows the anti-Vietnam songs that would be soon to come. Justin Timberlake, Carey Mulligan and Adam Driver are also featured on the soundtrack, with an appearance by Marcus Mumford, among others.

As Burnett points out, the album, being released Nov. 12 by Nonesuch Records, is culled from the film performances, pre-recordings and a couple of tracks that were recorded later, including “The Last Thing on My Mind,” on which the Punch Brothers were added. “In the movie, the actor (Stark Sands) sings the song in character,” says Burnett. “We wanted to give (Sands) the chance to sing it as himself on the record. Otherwise it could have sounded a bit arch.”

If Dylan, or an approximation of him, is not in the movie, he does surface on the soundtrack with the previously unreleased “Farewell,” thanks to Burnett’s friendship with Jeff Rosen, who oversees Dylan’s publishing. The song mirrors another track, “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song),” which serves as the film’s melancholic refrain.

Whether the album will achieve the success of a previous collaboration between Burnett and the Coens, the Grammy-winning “O Brother Where Art Thou,” which has sold almost 8 million units in the U.S. to date, remains to be seen.

A concert will be staged Sept. 29 at New York’s Town Hall, with proceeds benefitting the National Recording Preservation Foundation. Isaac, with fellow stars Carey Mulligan, John Goodman and Stark Sands, will perform, along with Mumford and guests Joan Baez, Patti Smith and Jack White, among others.

Whatever additional promotion is planned, Burnett will be throwing his support behind it 100%. “I’m going to be talking about it because I love it,” he says. “It’s a movie about the true lives of musicians, and a movie with a lot of heart.”

More Music

  • Kanye West attends "The Cher Show"

    Kanye West's Sunday Church Service: Where Spirituality and Exclusivity Meet

    Another Sunday has passed which means another installment of Kanye West’s weekly church service. Launched at the top of the year, it’s become the most prestigious, highly-coveted invitation among the greater music community in Los Angeles — an event that only the select and handpicked worshipers get to experience. So what’s the service like? Think: [...]

  • The myspace website viewed on an

    Musicians Freak Out as They Belatedly Learn Myspace Lost 50 Million Songs

    Myspace-related news travels very, very slowly in the late 2010s. So while the company had quietly acknowledged a massive data loss in response to user inquiries last year, it took until this weekend for the greater public to begin to become aware that all music uploaded to the site prior to 2015 has now migrated [...]

  • QueenNaija_Trailer

    Queen Naija Gets Docu-Series From MTV, Available on Facebook and YouTube

    Viral R&B star Queen Naija is featured in MTV’s newest digital original series, “The Birth of Queen Naija,” The first episode of the three-part docu-series launched Monday (March 18) on MTV Facebook, with the other installments to be released on following Mondays. “The Birth of Queen Naija” will also be available MTV YouTube on Fridays, [...]

  • Former Ozzy Osbourne Guitarist Bernie Torme

    Former Ozzy Osbourne Guitarist Bernie Torme Dies at 66

    Bernie Tormé, a veteran hard rock guitarist who played with Ozzy Osbourne,  Deep Purple singer Ian Gillan and his own solo bands, died Sunday at the age of 66, according to a statement from his family. “Bernie Tormé passed away peacefully on the 17th March 2019, one day short of his 67th birthday, surrounded by [...]

  • Brooks & Dunn, Ray Stevens Named

    Brooks & Dunn, Ray Stevens Named to Country Music Hall of Fame

    The once broken-up, now reunited country duo Brooks & Dunn were named to the Country Music Hall of Fame’s class of 2019 Monday morning, a few weeks before the release of their first album in 12 years. Also announced were comic singer-songwriter Ray Stevens, in the veteran performer category, and former producer and label chief [...]

  • Sony Music Names Amanda Collins Head

    Sony Music Names Amanda Collins Global Head of Corporate Communications

    Amanda Collins has been named executive vice president and global head of corporate communications for Sony Music Entertainment, effective immediately, it was announced today by CEO Rob Stringer. According to the announcement, in this role she will be responsible for the company’s global internal and external communications strategy and its implementation around the world, working [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content