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.”