One of the driving forces behind the Coen brothers’ magnificent Inside Llewyn Davis is the musical contribution of T Bone Burnett, their longtime collaborator who brought the O Brother Whereart Thou soundtrack to 8 million sold. Burnett’s desire to preserve and reveal American music from our past has lent Llewyn Davis what it needed: authenticity to the era, and the opportunity to celebrate it.
It wasn’t so surprising, then, for Joel and Ethan Coen’s first trip to the Telluride Film Festival they would be feted along with Mr. Burnett, who might be their third director this time around so integral is the music. The tribute this morning at the Chuck Jones theater would be in both Mr. Burnett and the Coens’ honor. They would feature clips from their collaborations (The Big Lebowski, O Brother, the Ladykillers and Inside Llewyn Davis) and then all would come on stage for a Q&A. But of course, since T Bone Burnett is involved, there had to be live music playing as the crowds spilled into the theater. That band, The Americans from Los Angeles, then sang their way to the stage and finished their set.
Where T Bone Burnett goes, beautiful music follows.
The Coens wanted to make a movie about the parallel lives of people who land in essentially the same place and try to make it as folk singers (some did and some didn’t, to varying degrees). This film is about one who didn’t. Llewyn Davis is in keeping with so many of the Coens’ protagonists – hapless, well-meaning fuck-ups who find themselves often in extraordinary circumstances. The verve with which Llewyn dives after the cat to help save him from peril is touching – but nothing he touches works out very well for anyone. At the same time, he’s his own worst enemy by making seemingly simple, but often profound mistakes throughout his life to guarantee that he doesn’t succeed.
This could be said of Rooster Cogburn in True Grit, Llewelyn Moss in No Country, Jerry in Fargo, The Dude – and on and on it goes. The extraordinary circumstances they find themselves in define the new world the Coens seek to conquer. With their latest, one of the best they’ve ever made, that world is Greenwich Village in the 1960s, and who better to help bring the spirit of that world alive than T Bone Burnett.
After the intro by Scott Foundas we were treated to clips from the chosen films, with Lebowski naturally stealing the show. With each film the music was featured prominently. It was suddenly hard not to notice T Bone contribution even if it one of the lesser elements celebrated when people celebrate the Coen brothers’ films. The carefully selected tunes for The Big Lebowski are a masterstroke accomplished mostly by Burnett’s wealth of knowledge. His contribution that film and O. Brother are immeasurable.
Even still, watching those films I’ve seen many times it was hard not to be struck, once again, by what expert filmmakers they are. Perhaps, in a way, they feel a little success guilt for having been praised so early in their careers, for always being welcomed and loved by critics. Maybe they know other filmmakers who worked hard and threw down around the same time as Blood Simple but they never got even a fraction of the success that the Coens have enjoyed.
In their q&a after the clips the Coens were adamant about not wanting to parody or lampoon the musicians of that era, what Bob Dylan thought were the “bland” folk singers of the time. Their respect and appreciation for people who were struggling and barely succeeding before all of them were washed away when the Dylan tsunami hit is evident in how they speak on the film and how they represented the music of the time – from great to, well, boring.
Because they were thinking along the lines of Dave Van Ronk vs. Bob Dylan, the film, Llewyn Davis runs along two parallel tracks. Events in it always come in twos. Two scenes with a roadtrip and a sleeping man, two cats escaping an apartment, two performances, two scenarios in an alley. There is so much more to the film than meets the eye. The Coens are brilliant because they always built a film with so much depth you could watch each one fifty times and still not get to everything.
There is a reason that Dylan’s success soared, and a likewise, the Coens. Genius like that doesn’t come around often. Dave Van Ronk is a great musician and singer, quite successful in his own right. But he wasn’t Bob Dylan because no one could be. Try thought they might, no one else can be the Coen brothers either.
These are artists who found their perfect outlet at a time when they were fearless in the risks they were willing to take. They are artists who rely heavily on their own imaginations, who can’t help but produce that which you’ve never experienced before and never will again. Maybe they figure there was something else involved, fate perhaps (Joel Coen insists this is not the message behind Inside Llewyn Davis), being in the right place at the exact right time. But the beauty in their film Llewyn Davis is luck has its upsides and its extreme downsides.
Where they also use their genius is in known whom to collaborate with. Roger Deakins for cinematography and T Bone Burnett for music. What a gift he’s been to them, and to us.
Burnett announced that the benefit concert in New York City later this year will benefit the preservation of music – he wants to do for old recordings what Martin Scorsese has done for film preservations. To that end, he and Jack White plan to take the show on the road. This is exciting news for any of us who can’t get to New York.
As for the Coens, they said they might like to take on a film about an opera singer next, one with an intermission. Ethan Coen concluded that the movie gets a lot worse after the intermission and he wanted to work that into the screenplay. Of course, with the Coens you never know what they’ll really do next.
***Please note, video of the event will be available a bit later.