Finding the folk scene’s beating heart with T Bone Burnett

Posted Thursday, Dec. 12, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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The movie Inside Llewyn Davis, a fable about the Greenwich Village folk scene, opening Friday, struck a deep, resonant chord with T Bone Burnett.

Once again collaborating with the Coen brothers, the Fort Worth-bred producer and musician saw more than a little of himself in the put-upon hero of the title, played by Oscar Isaac, whose superb work is generating awards chatter.

“This movie is the story of my life — I’ve lived this arc about three or four or five times,” Burnett says by phone from Los Angeles. “I don’t know how many times I’ve been happening and over in 50 years. … The thing I related to most strongly in this film [is] it’s a movie about a musician, first of all, so you see whole performances by him, you don’t see snippets. You see who he is because that’s who his character really is, when he’s performing, when he’s singing, he’s creating his life, his future, his environment, but as soon as he stops, the world crashes back down on him.”

Burnett, whose association with the Coens reaches back more than a decade to 2000’s O Brother, Where Art Thou?, says the pitch for the film was simple and straightforward.

“They’re so clear, these guys, and they make it so easy,” Burnett says. “They said, ‘Hey man, we want to do a film about the Greenwich Village folk music scene in 1961, just before [Bob] Dylan got there. And we want to do it all with real songs and made-up people, and we want to do it live on the set.’ … One of the things I love about working with the Coens is they do exactly what they say they’re going to do.”

A week in the life

Davis traces seven days of an itinerant musician (loosely based on the late Dave Van Ronk), reeling in the wake of his popular duo dissolving, struggling to establish himself as a solo artist and grappling with romantic problems, including potential fatherhood. Scraping together work where he can, Llewyn Davis seems to live for the moment when he’s seated on a stage, performing traditional and original folk songs with breathtaking skill.

Unlike many films reliant upon music, which often use pre-recorded tracks for simplicity’s sake, the Coens’ insistence on capturing live takes necessitated an acting troupe capable of making music on the fly (and repeatedly).

To that end, the Coens lucked out with Isaac, whose wounded tenor is the film’s beating heart, as well as Justin Timberlake, Carey Mulligan and Adam Driver, all of whom shine in their respective roles.

“This was such a clean, simple job, because everybody was so good,” Burnett says. “The Coens were lucky and found this guy [Oscar Isaac], but everybody was good. Justin Timberlake kills … there were killers everywhere.”

A love story

But more so than the fine musical performances in the film, which unfold with a leisurely confidence that’s remarkable (Isaac’s first scene is a full run-through of Hang Me, Oh Hang Me that’s mesmerizing), Burnett feels Inside Llewyn Davis is primarily a love story about a creator and his art, as well as a reminder of art’s value.

“I hope people take away the value of the humanity of a musician,” Burnett says. “I’ve lived 50 years among musicians, and I want to say they’re the most kind, gracious and loving people and the smartest people of any group I know. … The reason this movie is important is because it’s about actual musicians. I grew up — my whole life I lived with the pain of creating my own reality, and having it be this beautiful place of harmony and love and walking out into the street and getting slammed back into ‘You’re nobody; who do you think you are?’”

Burnett’s dance card remains as full as always, with projects already stacked high for the new year: John Mellencamp, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bob Dylan and Gregg Allman are lined up to work with the 65-year-old producer, who is also putting the finishing touches on the soundtrack for HBO’s forthcoming series True Detective, which Burnett describes as “really dark and really good.”

Preston Jones, 817-390-7713 Twitter: @prestonjones

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