Another Day, Another Time: Celebrating the music of Inside Llewyn Davis
DVD Review by Noam Bronstein
The summary? Just stop whatever you’re doing, and punch this up on iTunes, or better yet, order the DVD. Look for the live soundtrack on Nonesuch Records, too. Yes – it’s that good, and I don’t care what sort of music you gravitate toward.
A bit of backstory. Celebrated writer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen first commisioned T Bone Burnett to score their wonderful 2000 release O Brother Where Art Thou?, a film that succeeded with audiences and critics, both as a comedic re-imagining of Homer’s Odyssey, and as a “musical”. Fast forward and in 2013 (a pretty decent year for Hollywood), the Coens released Inside Llewyn Davis, a film ostensibly about the Greenwich Village folk music scene of 1961. The film invites us to spend a week in the life of Llewyn Davis (played brilliantly by Oscar Isaac), a broke, lonely musician, struggling to survive in the winter of ’61. Llewyn’s character is loosely based on Dave Van Ronk. A compelling story and full of great performances, Inside Llewyn Davis really derives its’ energy from the music in its’ soundtrack. Again the Coen brothers tapped the legendary T Bone Burnett to produce the music, with songs that include both traditional chestnuts and some superb, poignant originals. See this film – it’s worthwhile.
The really good news for those of us who enjoyed ILD, is that in September 2013, T-Bone and the Coens organized a concert at NYC’s Town Hall, to celebrate and promote the music of this film. The concert included performances by Oscar Isaac, Marcus Mumford, The Avett Brothers, The Punch Brothers, Jack White, The Milk Carton Kids, Dave Rawlings, Willie Watson, Gillian Welch, Joan Baez, and others. Some of the film’s other stars, including John Goodman, Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan also made appearances at the concert, but the DVD edition of the film is edited down to the essential (musical) performances and a few choice interview bits.
This is one of the most enjoyable music documentaries I’ve seen in recent years. In takes that highlight both the rehearsal session and the live concert – sometimes within the same song – we are treated to some absolutely gorgeous, stunning performances. If you dont know who Rhiannon Giddens is, you will after seeing this. Same for the Milk Carton Kids.
Burnett sets the tone in the rehearsal session, keeping a low, almost brooding profile, as he roams the floor, encouraging the musicians with a gentle hand of guidance. By the way, he’s not smoking a huge reefer – he’s burning a sage stick, a traditional folk remedy said to cleanse and prepare the physical space for use. The vibe seems supportive and collaborative, and Mumford credits T-Bone with creating that atmosphere, as well as ensuring an absence “of assholes”.
Burnett gets further marks for an outstanding technical production. All the music is rendered in great sound, and audiophiles will smile at the sight of shockmounted Neumann U47 mics, in abundance. Interestingly to me, the cameras seem to center on the U47’s in many of the film’s best shots. And why not? It’s the classic, and many say, unparalleled microphone, that brought us Bob Dylan and his contemporaries in all their vocal glory. Whether in Columbia’s studios, or at Newport, at the Gaslight, in Town Hall, or so many other great venues, this legendary Neumann literally brought us the folk singer movement.
As far as the music? The selection is wonderful, almost like a folk “mix tape” from T-Bone Burnett to us, the audience. Ranging from traditional ballads like Moonshiner and The Auld Triangle, to Bob Dylan’s obscure Fare Thee Well, from which the film’s title is derived, from classic Americana (This Land Is Your Land) to a Jack White original (We Are Going To Be Friends), it all works, and it comes off seamlessly, and beautifully. One might have wished Pete Seeger could have been there, or hoped for a Townes Van Zandt song. I would have tried to get Steve Earle, or perhaps Sam Beam, to join the fray. A few seconds of Carey Mulligan’s lovely face couldn’t have hurt, either. But it’s about as close to a perfect 101 minutes as one could ask for.*
I really did wish for more of the Milk Carton Kids’ beautiful harmonies. But overall, my favourite moments were the aforementioned Jack White tune, and Marcus Mumford’s soulful, haunting solo rendition of Dylan’s I Was Young When I Left Home. MM almost lost me in one clip, where he claimed something about “no egos” in this project, but he silences all criticism here, and leaves the Town Hall audience spellbound.
Great, great music, with gorgeous visuals and excellent sound…this DVD is a treasure. Not to be missed.
*performances omitted from the final cut included Elvis Costello, Joan Baez, Conor Oberst, Keb Mo, T Bone Burnett, Adam Driver, Carey Mulligan, and Dylan’s old pal Bobby Neuwirth. See the complete set list here.