News Column

The Marin Independent Journal, Novato, Calif. Lib at Large column

November 29, 2013

YellowBrix

Nov. 29--ROOTS MUSIC GURU T Bone Burnett, executive music producer of the new Coen brothers movie, "Inside Llewyn Davis," was in Marin recently with its star, newcomer Oscar Isaac, for an advance screening for California Film Institute members at the Smith Rafael Film Center.

"Inside Llewyn Davis," loosely based on the late Greenwich Village folk legend Dave Van Ronk's memoir "The Mayor of MacDougal Street," premiered in May at Cannes, winning the Grand Prix award and universal praise from critics. It's been on the festival circuit since then and is scheduled to open Dec. 20 in theaters.

The Coens' cinematic take on what Van Ronk jokingly called "the folk scare" of the early '60s is being eagerly anticipated as an adult alternative to the animated kiddie fare, adolescent action films and Christmas comedies that crowd into multiplexes during the holiday season. According to the website Rotten Tomatoes, 95 percent of the audience members it polled said they wanted to see it.

Although there have been numerous reviews (Rotten Tomatoes cites 30 in its 90 percent rating), the studio allowed me to attend the screening on condition I hold any review I write until it opens, even though that's three weeks away.

But I can tell you a lot about the music through the Q&A that CFI head Mark Fishkin moderated after the screening with Isaac, whose amazing portrayal of Llewyn Davis is his first lead role, and Burnett, who previously produced the Americana music on the Coens' 2000 hit "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" winning four Grammys for the soundtrack.

It's no secret that the look of the film, its mise-en-scene, was inspired by the wintry photo of Bob Dylan and girlfriend Suze Rotolo strolling arm-in-arm on Jones Street in the Village on the cover of 1963's iconic "Freewheelin' Bob Dylan" album.

But the Coens made it clear right away to Burnett and Isaac that Llewyn Davis is not to be confused with Dylan.

"They said, 'We want to do a film about the Greenwich Village folk music scene in 1961, just before Dylan got there,'" Burnett told the Rafael audience.

The brothers lifted the title of their movie from the album "Inside Dave Van Ronk," released in 1963. In the film, the Llewyn Davis character strikes the same doorway pose on his fictional album cover as Van Ronk did on his actual one. But, unlike the charismatic, avuncular Van Ronk, who befriended Dylan and many other young folk singers, the character the Coens created is more of a guitar-toting version of Larry David in TV's "Curb Your Enthusiasm," an earnest jerk who manages, in the name of authenticity, to offend just about everyone he comes in contact with, most intimately fellow folkie Jean Berkey, played by Carey Mulligan, who angrily pummels him with a certain anal expletive after a one-night-stand leaves her pregnant and pissed off.

At the Rafael screening, Burnett, looking Hollywood sleek in a blue bespoke suit and open collar dress shirt, was without his trademark dark shades, wearing instead a pair of fashionable wire-framed glasses. He said that when the Coens told him they wanted the songs recorded live on the set, in their entirety, without any prerecorded parts to sweeten the sound, he was slightly aghast.

"For anyone else but the Coens, I would have said, 'This is inadvisable,'" he remarked dryly, noting that they had to find a special kind of actor to pull that off. "He'd have to carry the whole film in every frame and be convincing and compelling as a performer," he explained. "We saw no one who could do both convincingly."

Until they auditioned Isaac, a 33-year-old actor-singer who grew up in Miami with a Guatemalan mother and a Cuban father.

"We said, 'Oh, there he is, there's Llewyn,'" Burnett recalled. "He didn't look anything like we thought he would look like."

Diminutive and dark, Isaac was born in 1980, two decades after the era depicted in the movie. He'd played guitar and sung in punk bands, and he had no real knowledge of folk music. Under Burnett's tutelage, he'd have to learn to fingerpick folk style while singing songs like Van Ronk's "Hang Me, Oh Hang Me" as if he'd heard them before.

Isaac said he thought of Burnett, who towers above him, as his "musical Mr. Miyagi," a reference to the martial arts guru in "The Karate Kid" movies. "His ways are indirect and invisible, but firm and effective," he said.

The first thing Burnett did was take him to Norman's Rare Guitars in the San Fernando Valley to find him a guitar, settling on a 1924 L1 Gibson acoustic.

"The guitar rock 'n' roll was invented on," Isaac noted. "After I tried several guitars, T Bone said, 'You're making music with that one.'"

Then Burnett put him in a room for an hour and had him listen to the latest Tom Waits record.

"It was all about stripping away artifice," Isaac explained. "At one point T Bone said, 'Just play it like you're sitting on your couch, like you're playing to yourself.' It was so off the cuff. It resonated with me like a bell. That's not only how I played the music, but also how I played the character, as an island unto himself."

Isaac makes it look easier than it was. For three months, all he did was practice.

"Because I had obsessed so much out of pure panic, I sang the songs over and over and played until my fingers were raw," he said.

I was less impressed with Isaac's mastery of the form after I found a YouTube video of Van Ronk showing step-by-step how to play his signature "Green, Green Rocky Road," a song Isaac re-creates note-for-note in the movie.

Nevertheless, his performance is remarkable.

"The job of the folk musician is to find these archaic songs and make them relevant, to make them new again," he said.

The Coens accomplished that with "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" Whether they can pull it off with "Inside Llewyn Davis" remains to be seen.

Contact Paul Liberatore via email at liberatore@marinij.com; follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/LibLarge. Follow his blog at http://blogs.marinij.com/ad_lib.

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