News Column

Cannes 2013: The musical side of the Coens' 'Inside Llewyn Davis'

May 19, 2013


May 19--"He had to be believable as a musician, because this is not the kind of movie where you hear a few bars of a song; they play out in their entirety," Joel continues. "But the character is in every scene, so he has to be a very accomplished actor. It's not easy to find that in the same person, so we were very frustrated until Oscar walked in."

"Now it weirdly seems as if it was written for him," adds Ethan. "But we would have been screwed if he hadn't come in the door."

The intense and charismatic Oscar Isaac, known to movie audiences for roles in "Robin Hood," "Drive" and "The Bourne Legacy," is the heart and soul of this exquisitely made film, which follows folk singer Davis on a one-week-in-hell journey that is both haunting and ever so bleakly funny.

The Coens mandated entire songs be sung -- the film opens with Davis singing a three-minute version of "Hang Me" in a Village club -- for several related reasons.

For one thing, singing was the best way to demonstrate that, though unsuccessful, Davis was an exceptional singer. "People would read the script," Joel relates, "and say, 'I don't get it. Is he supposed to be good or is he supposed to be crummy?' "

Also, because Davis can be a difficult person (just ask Jean, one of the women in his life, smartly played by Carey Mulligan), hearing him sing so beautifully, Joel says, "reveals something about him we don't see somewhere else."

In addition, "Frances [Joel's wife, actress Frances McDormand] pointed out that hearing the entire song makes this like a traditional musical. When the song is finished, we've notched up to a different place in the story."

With a superb soundtrack executive-produced by T Bone Burnett, music is one of the connections that "Inside Llewyn Davis" has to the earlier Coen brothers film "O Brother, Where Art Thou." Another is the Odyssey-like journey (there's even a cat named Ulysses involved) that Davis takes.

"We knew when we started that the script would circle back around to the starting point, the whole thing is a circle," says Joel. "And we've retrospectively noticed, though it was not foremost in our minds, that the structure of a song often does that."

"He keeps ending up in the same place," Ethan adds about the title character. "It's a nightmare journey, running hard and not getting anywhere."

Which raises the question, why do so many of the Coen brothers' movies involve terrible things happening to their characters? Being one of their protagonists, Joel admits, "is not for the weak of heart," but Ethan says that's the way it has to be.

"I don't know how else you'd do a story," he says, smiling. "Something good happens to a character? Why would you want to do that?"


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