Music of 'Llewyn Davis' reveals Coens' version of America
05:00 AM, Nov 30, 2013
In late September, Joel and Ethan Coen’s folk-music drama Inside Llewyn Davis made its U.S. premiere at the New York Film Festival, but a select group of local audiences got an even bigger treat than the movie itself: The next day, a concert featuring music from the film, out Friday, took place at Town Hall. Stars of the movie, including Oscar Isaac, John Goodman and Carey Mulligan, graced the stage alongside the likes of Joan Baez, Elvis Costello and the Punch Brothers.
But the four-hour show, titled Another Day, Another Time and scheduled to be broadcast on Showtime on Dec. 13, featured a lot more than the 14 folk tunes included on the Llewyn Davis soundtrack. In the opening minutes, before anyone said a word, the Punch Brothers performed a pitch-perfect rendition of Bob Nolan’s Tumbling Tumbleweeds, which famously sets the scene at the start of the Coen brothers’ cult favorite The Big Lebowski.
This staple set the stage for selections from the more recent film: Isaac, who plays a fictionalized version of early-’60s folk singer Dave Van Ronk, joined the Punch Brothers for a rendition of Fare Thee Well arranged by Marcus Mumford and T Bone Burnett, who produced the movie’s soundtrack along with the Coens. Elsewhere, Isaac joined his co-star Adam Driver for the comical pop song Please Mr. Kennedy, which serves as the movie’s most memorable, irreverent set piece.
With a lively mixture of old and new material, the concert reflected the way that Inside Llewyn Davis exists in the context of a much larger musical world that the Coens have created over the course of 30 years of making movies.
The siblings’ best works, from their early film noir tale Blood Simple through their Cormac McCarthy adaptation No Country for Old Men, root the struggles of desperate men and women in the lonely, expansive landscape of the American frontier. Their adaptation of the Charles Portis novel True Grit marked their only take on the traditional Western, in which characters engage in life-or-death battles fueled by personal vendettas. But virtually all Coen brothers characters fight to recognize their personal desires above all else. In a purely abstract sense, the urge of the bumbling anti-hero to run a successful business in Hudsucker Proxy isn’t so far removed from the ill-conceived kidnapping scheme in Fargo or the vain attempts to complete a screenplay in Barton Fink. The Coen brothers are among the great modern chroniclers of the search for realizing the American dream.
Since so many of their movies center on a precise mythology rooted in the nation’s history, it’s no surprise that several of their movies feature quintessentially American music as well. Before Llewyn Davis, which uses folk music to explore the plight of the unemployed artist in the early days of Kennedy-era bohemia, O Brother, Where Art Thou? offered an expressionistic take on Depression-era America by using bluegrass compositions to unearth the poetry in a crumbling world. Llewyn Davis personalizes that lyrical vision of American decay with its titular main character, whose opening and closing renditions of the traditional folk tune Hang Me, Oh Hang Me puts his solitary issues in the context of a pre-existing song that speaks to more than just his own grief. Viewed collectively, the movies show how American strife isn’t connected to a single moment in history but rather a universal experience.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Llewyn Davis aren’t conventional musicals, but they apply music in a similar fashion, by revealing the internal lives of their characters and allowing us to experience their emotions through the power of well-defined melodies. This is an especially potent equation in Llewyn Davis, as Isaac’s character spends much of the movie drifting from place to place in hopes of landing new gigs or even an album; it’s no spoiler to reveal that he’s enmeshed in a lost cause, because Llewyn gave up on his hopes a long time ago. You can hear the beauty and the tragedy of that reality whenever he stops whining to the people around him and picks up the guitar.