Llewyn Davis, Preservationist: Three Takes on the Music of the Film

At one point in the Coen brothers latest film Inside Llewyn Davis the title character shouts, "I hate f---king folk music." It's a strange declaration for Llewyn—a folksinger himself—but it's emblematic, in a way, of the anything but simple way the film looks at a style and an era. 

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At one point in the Coen brothers' latest film Inside Llewyn Davis, the title character shouts, "I hate f---king folk music." It's a strange declaration for Llewyn—a folk singer himself—but it's emblematic, in a way, of the anything but simple way the film looks at a style and an era. The Coens seem to want to both honor the folk tradition and lampoon it, and they've created a hero (of sorts) who is prone to both loving what he plays and reviling it. To learn about Llewyn's relationship to his craft, we talked to three experts on him and the period: T Bone Burnett, the film's executive music producer and a legend in and of himself; Oscar Isaac, the actor who plays Llewyn; and Elijah Wald, who co-authored The Mayor of MacDougal Street, the Dave Van Ronk memoir on which the film was loosely based.

T Bone Burnett: Executive Music Producer

On Llewyn's place in history: 
The film gives the sense that Llewyn doesn't really fit in. Though his music is beautiful, it doesn't seem to hit with people in the industry. Llewyn makes no attempts to appease anyone, though. He scoffs at performances of so-called friends, who sing in a manner that is more commercially-friendly. 

"I think there was a sense in classical music starting in about the 1930s that everything had been done and composers started composing in noises and silence; composers started using all sorts of different methods of making music. That didn't have anything to do with the traditional scales. People began to stop composing in pitches and began to compose in tone. There was a similar time like that in folk music. I think it was felt that acoustic music had run its course, they were moving into the electronic universe and that all music was going to be electronic and that folk music, that kind of music was a relic of the past. There were people that were trying to preserve it very carefully that didn’t want it lost. I think Llewyn Davis represents one of those people. I think Llewyn Davis represents a traditionalist, who was looking backward. Bob Dylan came along and he was a traditionalist as well, but he was able to go backward and forward at the same time." 

On music and parody in the film:
This is a Coen brothers movie, so there's a streak of black humor running throughout that extends, at times, to the music. In an early scene, Llewyn rolls his eyes during performances of "The Last Thing on My Mind"  and "Five Hundred Miles" at the Gaslight Cafe. Later, he joins in on a pop confection written for the film called "Please, Mr. Kennedy."

"We weren’t actually parodying those songs, we were doing pretty faithful renditions. The thing I’ve learned about music in film is this: even if the music’s supposed to be bad, it has to be great. If you’re doing a scene about bad music, and the music’s actually bad, then the scene’s just bad. You just have to tell the audience this is bad and the audience will go along with it.

"Music is like a special effect, it creates a heightened reality. The slight of hand that’s played in those scenes is those performances are beautiful, but because the picture depicts something else then the audience can go with it. And the audience can be saying, 'man, they sound good' and they see Oscar [who plays Llewyn] go like this and they know what he’s doing and they can laugh at it. But on the other hand, 'Please Mr. Kennedy,' that is a straight satire." 

Oscar Isaac: Actor, Llewyn Davis

On Llewyn's authenticity  (and the Coens' direction):
Llewyn's need for money leads him to play on the aforementioned "Please Mr. Kennedy," even if he accidentally insults his friend's work in the process. 

"Authenticity is a very important thing to him—even though, like you said, he’s not above it because when he really needs the money he’ll go record a cheesy pop song, and when he decides to do it he commits to it. That was a great piece of direction from the Coens—he doesn’t make fun of it while he’s playing with it. He can think it’s silly, [but] he’s a musician. He loves to play it, so once he decides to do it, he goes for it. I think that’s his dilemma: the scene is moving on. People want new. They want new things. They have records with the original ,so they don’t need this guy to be the curator anymore. They don’t want the preservationist. So he’s at a dilemma because that’s his authentic means of expression. So that’s one of the reasons why he’s such in a precarious situation."

On Llewyn's wrong song: 
In one pivotal scene Llewyn, having made his way to Chicago to perhaps catch a stroke of luck and impress the influential Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham). He launches into a tragic song.

"That song wasn’t originally in the script. It just says, 'Llewyn sings a song and the scene continues.' So I started looking through all of Dave Van Ronk’s catalogue, I started gravitating towards bluesy songs and songs that were gruff and a real showcase for his soul and his grit. Then I would bring that to the Coens and they said, 'Eh we’re thinking of something a little more white bread.' And I’m like, uh okay. They get this song about a medieval c-section called 'The Death of Queen Jane.' And I just did not get it at all. I was so confused. I said, well, how come this song? They just said: 'Well, we think it will be funny.' I spent months trying to wrap my mind around this song and how to work my way in because it’s so the opposite of what I usually gravitate towards—it was very airy and lilting in that traditional kind of Irish or English balladeer way. After I saw it, in retrospect, I realized of course this is the song because it totally epitomizes who Llewyn is and what a folksinger is, which is these people that find these old archaic songs and they make them completely relevant and vital to the moment and what’s happening in their lives. And that’s what Llewyn does. That’s his whole thing. He plays old songs and makes them new again. But it was the wrong choice. Clearly."

Elijah Wald: Musician and Author

On where Llewyn comes from:  
Why might Llewyn be so frustrated with other members of the community  of which he is ostensibly a part? Wald explains that there are two disparate conceptions of folk music at work. 

"In the folk scene, there’s always been this break between the people who think of the music as serious art, particularly serious working class art, and the people who think of it as, I suppose you could say, summer camp songs. And who sort of have taken that summer camp thing and have put it on stage because it’s fun for everybody. And those are really the two worlds on folk music. Folk music is the music of coal miners, and folk music is the music of summer camp kids. And Llewyn Davis is very much on the coal miner side of that equation." 

On Llewyn's show: 
In the film one of the most notable difference between Llewyn and the other acts is simply how he plays. They stand up, swinging side to side, he sits, barely making eye contact. Wald compares that to Van Ronk, the real person, that served as inspiration for the character.

"Llewyn is not trying to the roughen up his voice, but he also is not doing a show. He’s very much doing something which a lot of them thought was very important, which is he is essentially staring at his shoes, which is how Van Ronk used to describe it. He’s wearing his street clothes, he’s staring at his shoes, and he’s just delivering the songs. And one of the things that is fascinating to me about the movie is how well that still works. You watch him doing him 'Hang Me, Oh Hang Me' at the beginning, they do the song all the way through and one of the things that fascinated me watching the movie with a large crowd was that people listened absolutely rapt to that, who then giggled at the 'Five Hundred Miles.'

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.