Inside Llewyn Davis: Original Soundtrack Recording (Nonesuch, 2013)
Performed by: Various Artists (Oscar Isaac, Stark Sands, Justin Timberlake, Carey Mulligan, Punch Brothers, Marcus Mumford, John Cohen & The Down Hill Strugglers, among others)
Produced by: T Bone Burnett, Marcus Mumford, and the Coen Brothers
I’ll start with an album that’s been a near-constant presence in my car stereo for the past year or so: the Inside Llewyn Davis soundtrack, released in 2012 and directed by the Coen Brothers, which I watched with my friend Jun last year. The film follows a week in the life of a folk singer named Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) as he sleeps on friends’ couches, takes work as a session musician, and continuously seeks out his next gig in 1960s Greenwich Village. Before I watched it, I haven’t heard of this film except possibly from a trailer I saw as a YouTube ad, but I was enthralled by the actors’ performances and I felt I was watching a concert film.
Films about music and musicians often come with two sets of challenges: will the actors actually perform the music or will they just lip-sync to recordings, and how close can the actors come to authentically portraying their characters? Inside Llewyn Davis fortunately found not only musically-talented actors but also took loose inspiration from their source material (The Mayor of MacDougal Street, by Dave Van Ronk, who serves as the basis of Llewyn), that they can have some wiggle room with the music. The result is a skillfully created labor of love that not only captures some great performances from great actors and musicians, but also the spirit of folk music that made it bloom in the 1960s and continue today.
The song list plays out like a greatest hits of the 1960s folk revival scene in New York City, and just as Llewyn Davis’ life is based off of Dave Van Ronk’s, so too does the songs he sings. “Hang Me Oh Hang Me,” “Green Green Rocky Road,” and the reprise of “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song)” play almost exactly as Van Ronk did in the 1960s, yet Oscar Isaac’s softer voice, compared to the gravelly howl of Van Ronk, makes the songs feel more poignant, especially in the sorrowful whisper of “The Death of Queen Jane”’s final verse. It also doesn’t hurt that Oscar Isaac has an impeccable sense of timing and learned classical guitar in his childhood, which helps with fingerpicking folk guitar. Justin Timberlake, Stark Sands, and Carey Mulligan’s “Five Hundred Miles” sounds sweeter, saccharine even, compared to Peter, Paul and Mary’s sparse rendition, thanks in part to the mandolin and fiddles of the classical-meets-bluegrass group Punch Brothers and the direction of “associate” music producer Marcus Mumford.
What of “Please Mr. Kennedy,” the comical novelty song written by Llewyn’s friend, played by Justin Timberlake? How can this rocking ditty about an astronaut’s second thoughts about being shot into the cosmos fit with these adroitly-performed renditions of old folk songs? It’s a question similar to that if the actors’ performances can escape from the shadow of the artists that made the originals famous. Novelty songs were part and parcel of the musical landscape in the 1960s, and most art, including music, is about and inspired by pieces that came before it. A Slate piece about the genius of “Please Mr Kennedy” writes that there was another “Please Mr. Kennedy,” sung by Mickey Woods and released on the Motown imprint Tamla in 1961, that this song might be based on, and Woods’ song was inspired by Larry Verne’s “(Please) Mr. Custer,” which came out a year before. If the film’s “Mr Kennedy” builds off of existing novelty songs, then what do we make of the interpretations of the folk songs on the soundtrack? Even the hitherto-unreleased Bob Dylan track, “Farewell,” comes right on the heels of Isaac’s reprise of “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song),” proving the oft-quoted aphorism that talent imitates, but genius steals, or Llewyn’s line from the film, “if it ain’t new and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song.”
Most of the songs that these young men and women were singing in the 1960s includes work songs, spirituals and ballads, covering moods from heartbroken to humorous, and reflects the pain, pleasure, beliefs, values, and stories that people have always told themselves to be entertained or to make sense of their world. The movie shows how folk music written miles and decades away from Greenwich Village can still speak powerfully to those young folk singers. Even though Bob Dylan and the man himself, Dave Van Ronk, make appearances on the album, their shadow shouldn’t block out the cast’s talented performances from the film and on the album. Neither should the more modern production courtesy of T Bone Burnett and Marcus Mumford or backing from the Punch Brothers detract from the quality of the songs with accusations of a lack of authenticity. The notion that folk songs should be left to the “professionals” that made them famous first, sang them better, or recorded it the right way is anathema to the spirit of folksong, the musical embodiment of generations of human feelings, travails, stories, and beliefs. As John Jeremiah Sullivan wrote in the album’s liner notes: “You don’t sing folk music, it sings you,” and Llewyn Davis’ soundtrack brings that same spirit to a new generation, just as the film did through the silver screen.
You might also like…
Dave Van Ronk – Inside Dave Van Ronk (Fantasy, 1962,1989)
Punch Brothers – The Phosphorescent Blues (Nonesuch, 2015)
Laura Veirs – Tumble Bee (Raven Marching Band, 2011)