“If it’s never new and doesn’t get old, it’s a folk song,” a melancholy Llewyn Davis tells his audience in Joel and Ethan Coen’s latest film, “Inside Llewyn Davis.” And if that song is part of a soundtrack tied to a Coen brothers film, then it could be a huge hit.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” follows a week in the life of a Greenwich Village musician as he navigates the obstacles of the 1961 folk scene. It stars Oscar Isaac as the titular Llewyn, a young musician based on the “Mayor of MacDougal Street,” folk singer Dave Von Ronk. Co-stars Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake play a musical couple whose easy listening style is reminiscent of Peter, Paul and Mary. Also featured in the story are John Goodman as a crotchety jazz musician with a disdain for the budding sound (“Folk music?” he asks Llewyn. “I thought you said you were a musician.”) and “Girls” star Adam Driver, whose inclusion in one of the numbers adds a welcome element of hilarity.
But like the Coen brothers’ 2000 film “O Brother Where Art Thou,” the real star of this project could very well end up being the music. Despite winning the Grand Prix at Cannes and earning rave reviews months before its winter release, the film might come in second to the gorgeousness of its own soundtrack. To achieve an authentic sound of 1960s folk, the Coens returned to collaborator T-Bone Burnett.
“The first person we sent the script to when it was finished was T-Bone,” Ethan told Indiewire. Burnett then set out to round up a number of songs that would appropriately accompany the story that was being told within the film.
“The film is constructed a little like a folk song,” Burnett said. “You get to the last verse and it’s the same as the first verse, except you’ve learned quite a bit along the way.” He explained that the songs chosen needed to reflect Llewyn’s personal journey and also explore the roots of folk music within American history.
“The [songs] not directly commenting on the character are sign-posts in some ways or another,” Joel said. For example, “Five Hundred Miles,” as sung by Timberlake, Mulligan and Stark Sands echoes immigration and the sprawl across the country. The funny “Please Mr. Kennedy, the only original song on the album, comments on the U.S. and Russian space race. It was rewritten from an identically named song, but instead of asking “Please Mr. Kennedy, please don’t shoot me into outer space” the song asked, “Please don’t send me into Vietnam.”
“But we weren’t going to put a song about Vietnam in 1960,” Burnett said. “So we decided to change it.”
The Irish influences in the tracks “The Auld Triangle” and “The Shoals of Herring” stem from the fact that thousands of Scots-Irish immigrants were transported to the Appalachian Mountains to fight during the Revolutionary War. The influx, Burnett said, is why some bluegrass and folk music has a noticeably Celtic sound.
“The story of folk music really is the story of our country,” he said.
Also included on the album is the previously unreleased Bob Dylan track “Farewell.” Burnett didn’t like the sound quality of the original version they were initially going to use so he went to Dylan’s long time manager Jeff Rosen to see if they had any other recordings. They discovered a version from the early 60s that had never before been released; folk authenticity at its finest. And this is not one of those instances where you hear only seconds of a song within the film and then have to listen to the soundtrack to hear the rest. Most of them are played through in their entirety in the movie.
“It was clear to us from the beginning that we wanted to be watching whole performances, not little snippets of performances,” Ethan said. “It’s how you get to know the main character and how you get to know the scene.”
To help him piece the album together Burnett brought Marcus Mumford of English folk rock band Mumford & Sons on board as associate producer. The pair had been talking about working on a project together. Then a few days after Mulligan, Mumford’s wife, was cast in the film, Burnett got a call.
“He said, ‘Hey man this Llewyn Davis thing, I hate to bother you about this but, is there anything I can do?'” Burnett said. Mumford even offered to simply get people tea while they worked. “And I was like yeah,” Burnett said. “Come help us. I’ll take all the help I can get, certainly from the likes of Marcus.”
Bringing Mumford on board was a reflection of just how well this type of folk, bluegrass and Americana inspired music has done since the Coens first collaboration with Burnett, the “O Brother Where Art Thou?” soundtrack.
“Marcus will tell you, and a lot of young musicians like Marcus, will tell you that T-Bone’s “O Brother” soundtrack is a big influence,” Ethan said. Burnett argued that a shift towards a folk-rock revival had already started when the “O Brother” soundtrack came out, but the Coens agreed that the album added a spark.
“There’s a lot of contemporary and very young artists working now who are very much influenced and carrying on the tradition of that music but in a contemporary, modern way,” Joel said. Naturally, comparisons between the two soundtracks bring comparisons between the two films. Though the Depression-era south and 1961 Greenwich Village seem worlds apart, only 24 years break up the films’ settings and they share a stylized look of muted colors and working-class grime. Llewyn embarks on a journey, an odyssey, much like George Clooney’s character Ulysses Everett McGill in “O Brother,” which in turn was influenced by Homer’s “The Odyssey.” Even the orange tabby cat that Llewyn reluctantly cares for is named Ulysses.
“We’re conscious of connections between the two movies,” Ethan said, though both brothers emphasize that the music of both contains more of a connection than the films.
“The movies are very different but the music of course is very, very much related,” Joel said. “And this goes to a long-standing interest on our part in that kind of American music.”
The “O Brother” soundtrack went platinum eight times, won the 2002 Grammy for Album of the Year, among others, and has sold over 7.8 million copies since its release. Do they have the same hopes for “Inside Llewyn Davis”?
“We didn’t have those hopes for that album either!” Burnett said, laughing. “That was a phenomenon and none of us could have predicted it.”
“I think it’ll be successful,” Ethan said.
The “Inside Llewyn Davis” album reached #68 on the Billboard 200 last week, and has so far sold 12,000 copies, according to data from Nielsen SoundScan. “Another Day, Another Time: Celebrating The Music Of ‘Inside Llewyn Davis'” a concert of the album featuring performances from Joan Baez, Patti Smith, Jack White, as well as Mumford, Isaac and Mulligan was presented at Manhattan Town Hall and will air on Showtime on Dec 13. With the film opening this Friday and the subsequent televised concert, “Inside Llewyn Davis” fever could spread.
“Hopefully people will discover this,” Joel said, “and find it familiar and beautiful.”
“Inside Llewyn Davis” opens in New York and Los Angeles Dec. 6 and expands Dec. 20. The soundtrack is out now on Nonesuch Records.