"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.