Publicity shy writer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen came to Telluride for the first time, not only to screen “Inside Llewyn Davis” for festival audiences but to pay tribute to their long-time musical collaborator T-Bone Burnett. “Inside Llewyn Davis” is as pure as the driven snow, much like the title character played by gifted actor/musician Oscar Isaac (who played supporting roles in “Sucker Punch” and “Drive” as Carey Mulligan’s husband). Which is to say that the movie is about an artist who can’t be anything but himself.
After the first full-length song that opens the movie, I was ready to applaud. Davis writes and soulfully performs old and new songs and plays the guitar beautifully–a propulsive style called Travis picking that Isaac had to master–and has earned the respect of his fellow folk musicians (Justin Timberlake, Adam Driver). And yet he’s not a likable fellow, partly because he’s trying to make his way without his lost partner, depressed and angry that he’s not making a living and that many of his peers have mastered the knack of pleasing audiences and making money, while he sleeps on other people’s lumpy sofas and can’t seem to get ahead.
Nothing is going Davis’s way. He had a fling with a singer (Mulligan) who now loathes him and wants to get rid of his baby. He shuts the locked door to a friend’s apartment just as their orange cat bolts down the hall, and he has to carry the creature around without losing it again. He seems better able to care for the cat than he does himself–the wily Coens recognize that the cat makes him a tad more likable than he would be otherwise.
Loosely inspired by New York-born Dave Von Ronk’s memoir about his life in the Village in the early 60s, the big cheese before the folk movement took off with Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, “Inside Llewyn Davis” is serious Coens, often funny, but much like the dark “Barton Fink” (starring John Turturro), it’s about the serious artist who can’t compromise to make art and commerce meet half-way. For that reason I suspect that artists of all persuasions will identify with Davis, and feel his pain. The climactic scene where he plays a song for a club/promoter (F. Murray Abraham) says it all.
They created composites of different characters such as Ramblin Jack Davis (Adam Driver). The songs full of sadness and loss carry the movie’s sweetness and emotion. But they are folk songs, and thus the movie is not as rollicking and accessible as the Coens’ musical collaboration with musical supervisor T-Bone Burnett, “O Brother Where Art Thou?,” a breezy comedy packed with corn-pone humor and catchy southern roots music that entertained a crossover audience, boosted by a sleeper Grammy-winning score.
Funded by StudioCanal, “Inside Llewyn Davis” was picked up by CBS Films ahead of its Cannes premiere, partly due to co-president and veteran Oscar campaigner Terry Press’s strong relationship with producer Scott Rudin (“A Social Network”).
“Inside Llewyn Davis” played well at Telluride but was overshadowed by a roster of shiny new Oscar contenders, from Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity” and Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” to Denis Villeneuve’s “Prisoners.” While the Coens are skipping Toronto, “Davis” should go on to play well on their home turf with New York Film Festival crowds and critics.
The Telluride Tribute was great fun (their old cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld presented them with the medallion). After a splendid set of clips focused on musical sequences in “The Big Lebowski” (1998), “O Brother Where Art Thou?” (2000), “The Ladykillers” and “Inside Llewyn Davis” among others, interviewer Todd McCarthy had the unenviable task of taking the laconic Coens and Burnett through their paces. They’ve never been very forthcoming, but McCarthy persevered and wrung a few things out of them, like how when they were kids they did Super 8 remakes of movies they’d seen, from “The Naked Prey” to “Advise and Consent.” Their’s was not a musical upbringing: their parents had three records, “The Mikado,” “Fiddler on the Roof” and one of Allan Sherman’s comedy recordings. Joel took the record player with him to college. Ethan remembered listening to Pete Seeger and folk music.
For “Inside LLewyn Davis,” “a success story would not appeal to us,” said Ethan Coen. “The guy who wasn’t Bob Dylan was more interesting.” Phil Ochs and Dylan were from the midwest, he pointed out. “The great folk scene of the 50s and 60s before Dylan showed up,” says Joel. “There was a dividing line, part of the fascination was what did Bob Dylan walk into? We all know where it went from there. You can’t do anything like this without Dylan looming large.”
The biggest challenge for the Coens on this film was finding an actor/musician who could carry the movie and sing its roster of challenging folks songs, holding the screen and not sending viewers toward the exits. Oscar Isaac was their guy. “He’s more than a credible musician,” says Ethan Coen. “He could sing whole songs. You have to want to watch him as well as his musical performance. It was crazy for us to find someone. But we found Oscar.”
“The musician shows us who they are while they are singing,” says Joel Coen. “He has to reveal himself as an actor and reveal himself as a musician. How to find those things in one person? When Oscar walked in the door we were so excited.”
The Coens wanted to shoot the film like a documentary. So Isaac had to learn 8 to 10 songs and be able to sing them all the way through, live on camera, in one take. “It was like a tightrope without a net and without a rope,” said Burnett. “It’s the story of every musician’s life.” He says they gave up flexibility with their demand to shoot live in only a few takes. Isaac was able to keep the tempo, amazingly, so they were able to cut between takes.
On their collaborations, Burnett (a walking library of American music, which is what they told him “O Brother” was going to be) makes music suggestions after going through the script. On “The Big Lebowski,” Burnett suggested Yma Sumac and they told the production designer to do an Inca beach party. “So he put in some tiki torches,” Ethan Coen said. On “O Brother” they didn’t get everything they wanted, from Earl Monroe to Doc Watson. They went to Nashville where Burnett set up a big room where all the musicians auditioned for them as they walked through. They were afraid the bluegrass community would be suspicious, but they wound up embracing them.
McCarthy asked, were they inspired by Preston Sturges’ “Sullivan’s Travels”? No, they replied, it was more Homer’s “The Odyssey” and “The Wizard of Oz.” They loved the idea of the Del Rio recording studio in the middle of nowhere, or the 50,000 Watt radio station.
On “The Ladykillers” they mixed and matched hip hop, gospel music and Edgar Allen Poe. That was a movie that did not resonate with audiences. It remains to be seen how this pure portrait of the artist as a poor man will play.