When Oscar Isaac first approached T Bone Burnett to prepare for his role as a folk singer in Inside Llewyn Davis, the film's executive music producer gave him some good advice.
"He told me, 'Sing like you're singing to yourself,'" Isaac recalled during a Cannes Film Festival press event Sunday as the much-anticipated Coen brothers film made its world premiere. "That struck me for a long time."
Isaac's Llewyn Davis does open the movie singing, seemingly very much to himself. But from the sounds of the film's Cannes reception, this performance will be seen and heard by many more people.
Joel and Ethan Coen's first film since 2010's True Grit was immediately embraced by swooning critics at the festival, even before Sunday's gala premiere. TheHollywood Reporter called it "outstanding" and "a singular work by the protean filmmaking team." Meanwhile, Variety called the fictional depiction of the New York 1960s folk scene a "revelatory showcase" for Isaac, who was greeted with hearty "bravos" when introduced at the press event.
As one besotted journalist asked Isaac: "Where have you come from, and where the hell are you going?"
Isaac, 33, best known for his role as Prince John in 2010's Robin Hood, didn't have a strong answer for that question. But his impressive onscreen trifecta -- acting, singing, guitar playing -- is speaking for itself.
"This movie is really about one character. And that one character is in almost every scene in the movie. And that character also has to be an incredible musician who sings and plays guitar," said Ethan Coen, who shared writing and directing duties with his brother. "I don't know how else to describe it, but we were screwed until we met Oscar."
Music veteran Burnett was beyond impressed with the talent.
"Just the odds of finding Oscar were one in 17 million," he said. "I haven't done the exact calculation."
Playing a conflicted singer, Isaac is not alone. He's supported by a cast that includes Justin Timberlake as Jim Berkey, a wholesome folk singer working the emerging scene alongside his wife, Jean (Carey Mulligan).
Both actors show new skills and new sides of their personalities. Timberlake proudly showed off a beard and a hankering for '60s sweaters: "I enjoy looking ridiculous," he said, "so that was not hard for me."
Mulligan, who's making her second appearance at Cannes after upper-class Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby, got the chance to show off an impressive singing voice and the ability to swear with great ease.
"It's like, wouldn't it be interesting to do something out of left field that you haven't seen (an actor) do, but you know they can do?" Joel Coen said.
"And it's fun to see Carey swearing like a stevedore," Ethan Coen said.
Llewyn Davis' combative attitude is one reason for his seeming never-rise to success. Still, in fickle show business, luck plays a big part, Burnett said. "There might be a reviewer from TheNew York Times in the audience one night, and one guy might be beat down and another guy is fresh and owns that particular moment. I've seen that happen over and over again."
Inside Llewyn Davis will open in select cities Dec. 6.
Joel Coen, left, and Oscar Isaac keep straight faces, unlike Carey Mulligan, who reacts to Inside Llewyn Davis co-star Justin Timberlake.
Valery Hache, AFP/Getty Images
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