If ever there was a film that depended for its heart and soul on the quality of the music, it is the Coen Brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis” (opening in Seattle Friday, Dec. 20), which tells the story of a Greenwich village folk singer in the early ’60s. To make sure they got the music right, the crafty Coens turned to T Bone Burnett, whom they’d already worked with a number of times, most significantly on “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”
Burnett, who won an Oscar for “The Weary Kind” (from “Crazy Heart”), has toured as a guitarist with Bob Dylan, produced Diana Krall and directed the music for the TV show “Nashville.” Burnett spoke on the phone a few weeks ago about working on the Coens’ new film.
Q: Jeff Bridges was a fine musician before “Crazy Heart,” but Connie Britton and Hayden Panetierre? You got them singing bang-up country on “Nashville” and now the star of this film, Oscar Isaac, sings and plays folk guitar like he was born holding one. How on earth did you do this?
A: Any other filmmaker who had come to me and said, “We want to make a film about a musician and we want to do three- or four-minute live performances, and we want to do it documentary-style without a click track,” I would have advised them against it. So to find a guy who could do it and also work on camera as an actor … it seemed impossible. No one has ever learned to play and sing a whole repertoire that well and film it that well.
Q: How did Isaac prepare?
A: When he heard about the part, he started studying (Greenwich Village folk singer) Dave Van Ronk. A guy who lives above the Gaslight (a venue central to the story) now, if you could believe this, played with Dave Van Ronk … can’t remember his name (Eric Franz). Oscar started studying with him, too.
Q: Did you audition a lot of people?
A: When Oscar showed up, we had seen a lot of musicians. A lot of them could carry the music, but they couldn’t carry the character. Because the thing about this character … is that when he’s playing is when you see who he actually is. All the details of a true live performance have to be that good. Not just once … but with whole long songs.
Q: You are credited with suggesting the film include the classic campfire song, “500 Miles.” Why?
A:What all this music is about is that all these people came from many different countries, and music was the common language. Everyone can relate to the lyrics to that song: “Not a shirt on my back, Not a penny to my name …” That to me goes right to the core of being an American.
Q:There are a few anachronisms, one being the use of the verb “crash,” (for falling asleep), which came into American slang long after 1960.
A: Hey, we weren’t making a documentary. (laughter) “The Last Thing on My Mind” (sung in the film) was written in 1964. It’s OK.