Much the same could be said of the Coen Brothers—the Oscar-winning writing, producing, directing and editing team Joel and Ethan Coen—and their long partnership with composer Carter Burwell, who began his career together with them on 1984’s Blood Simple, and whose inimitable music has gone on to underscore the action in all but one of their 15 subsequent films. At the same time, another indispensable music man has joined the Coen family: T-Bone Burnett. Although Burnett writes his own music for some of the Coens’ films, he is first and foremost what is called a music supervisor or sometimes an executive music producer, though music guru might be more to the point.
“T Bone” (a childhood nickname that stuck) is from Texas, and he can draw an eloquent comparison between traditional American music and the art of barbecue cooking. Indeed, if the whole music thing hadn’t worked out, he might have made an equally big splash in the hot-sauce business. But while still in his 20s, he went on the road as a guitarist in Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue, and in the 30 years since has written and produced music for the likes of Tony Bennett, Elvis Costello, Elton John and Roy Orbison.
He got his start in movies around the same time, acting and playing as one of the boys in the band in the immigrant dance hall of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate. But he did not do much else for the screen until, in 1995, the Coens recruited him for The Big Lebowski, where he created a soundtrack of existing tunes to accompany Burwell’s orchestral score. It was an inspired meeting, from the Sons of the Pioneers singing “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” over the opening credits to the Gipsy Kings’ wonderfully eccentric cover of “Hotel California”—indeed, think back to Lebowski, and you can practically hear the movie in your mind before you can see it.
But Burnett is much more than a high-end DJ. He’s a musicologist in the traditions of the great John and Alan Lomax, with an encyclopedic knowledge of music in general and traditional American music in particular. So he was a natural choice to work with the Coens again on O Brother, Where Art Thou?, where he didn’t merely choose the songs, but produced new recordings of them with today’s country and bluegrass elite on vocals. The resulting album proved so popular that it launched its own concert tour.
Burnett’s reputation grew, and he has gone on to write and produce music for Cold Mountain (earning an Oscar nomination for his work) and for Crazy Heart (winning the Best Original Song Oscar). And now, back together with the Coens with Inside Llewyn Davis, their richest collaboration and one of the greatest films about music ever made in this country—a masterful evocation of the early 1960s Greenwich Village folk revival, with a lilting, haunting song score that gets into one’s head and stays there for days after. In Llewyn Davis, the images and music become completely inseparable. What’s more, the actors did all their own singing, live on the set, and played their own instruments. Take that, Les Miserables.
Film Watch got the scoop on their partnership.
FILM WATCH: How did you get interested in making a movie set against the Greenwich Village folk music revival?
JOEL COEN: We were always interested in the music of the period, the so-called folk revival of the late 1950s, the thriving folk music scene that was taking place in the village before Bob Dylan showed up—music that was being produced and played during what might be termed the beatnik scene of the 50s and early 60s. That period lasted only through the very early 1960s, and most people don’t know about it.
The character of Llewyn Davis is loosely based on Dave Van Ronk, whose wonderful memoir The Mayor of MacDougal Street is complete with very opinionated analysis of the different types of acts, who had talent and who didn’t.
ETHAN COEN: It’s Van Ronk’s memoir that he started writing, but died before completing. His friend, the journalist Elijah Wald, basically put it together for him. It’s less a memoir than it is interviews with Dave. One day Joel just said, “What about this? Here’s the beginning of a movie…. a folk singer gets beat up in the alleyway behind Gerde’s Folk City.” We thought about the scene, and then we thought, “Why would anyone beat up a folk singer?” So it became a matter of trying to come up with a screenplay, a movie that could fit around that and explain the incident.
T BONE BURNETT: The only thing I can tell you about Dave Van Ronk is he wasn’t a loser. He was a brilliant artist who suffered this fate that many of us suffer. No matter what, you can suffer this fate…like in Unforgiven, where the young kid has just shot a man, and he’s feeling incredibly guilty, and he’s getting drunk, and he says, “Well, he had it coming,” and Clint Eastwood says, “We all got it coming, kid.” It’s a great line. Dave never got his due, that’s for sure. But you know, he was tremendously influential. Dylan slept on his couch. Like Llewyn, sleeping on couches. And like Llewyn, he never got his due. But he had it coming.
This marks your fourth collaboration together. Can you talk a little about how you worked together this time?
JOEL COEN: When we were writing the script, musical ideas—even specific songs we wanted to use—became part of the process. At this point, T Bone got involved. We tell him what we’re thinking of and he starts making suggestions.
ETHAN COEN: One of the things T Bone suggested was the song “500 Miles.” It’s a very beautiful song. We saw a YouTube clip of the Brothers Four performing it in a club, and the entire audience joined in singing. That wouldn’t happen today.
T BONE BURNETT: You know what? I can’t remember. Our collaboration is such that I can’t distinguish between what anybody suggested other than to say I think Joel and Ethan suggested most songs, and I just facilitated. But I probably did come up with “500 Miles.” I love it. It’s a beautiful, beautiful song. Dylan did a version of it.
Do you see any thematic connections among the songs in the film?
T BONE BURNETT: The movie starts out with “Hang Me,” a song about getting hung, and then it goes into “If I Had Wings,” and you come into Llewyn’s world and you find the guy he had done “If I Had Wings” with jumped off a bridge. Then every song is either about death, abortion, murder. It’s separation. “500 Miles” feels like a deep, beautiful song from the slavery era in this country, and I thought it was interesting the way it’s been metabolized into the culture through folk music….
Of course, a lot of folk music was descended from the American “roots” music of the sort you featured prominently on the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou?
JOEL COEN: If you trace it back far enough it’s all Americana, the same kind of music, the same family tree, the same species of song we used in O Brother. We’ve both been interested in this traditional American folk music a long time. We felt the folk music revival of the 50s was in part a revival of the traditional American folk musical forms we’d always been aware of and loved. A lot of this music is really beautiful, and its revival developed into what we think of as the singer-songwriter “thing,” which is different from traditional folk music.
T BONE BURNETT: It’s American, American music. Traditional—I call it Traditional American music. I don’t know what else to call it really because it’s the music of the poor people, and it’s beautiful. Like all of the great cuisines, all the great food innovations—not all of them, but so many of them—were peasant foods; barbecue, for instance, down here in the South. They invented barbecue sauce because they would get the meat that would go bad, and they’d have to cook it for two weeks to get it to get edible. It would taste so bad they would put barbecue sauce—they’d put all kinds of crazy sauce on it.
Scott Foundas is chief film critic at Variety.
T Bone Burnett and Coen Brothers
Joel Coen, b. November 29, 1959, Minneapolis, Minn.
Ethan Coen, b. September 21, 1957, Minneapolis, Minn.
T Bone Burnett, b. January 14, 1948, St. Louis, Missouri
Inside Llewyn Davis (U.S., 2013)
“Littered with catchy tunes composed by T Bone Burnett, Llewyn Davis is the musical opposite of their bluegrass-heavy O Brother Where Art Thou? That was a hyper-stylized take on American iconography that, by comparison, seems to take place in an alternate reality; Llewyn Davis is closer to a familiar world. That’s partly because the Coens give the music room to breathe. Llewyn’s acoustic compositions are mainly solemn works, and they reflect the character’s solitary existence in the wake of a former bandmate’s suicide that precedes the story. More than that, Llewyn Davis creates the sense of inhabiting its character’s world without forcing his subjectivity in your face.” –Eric Kohn, Indiewire
The Ladykillers (U.S., 2004)
“The highlight of The Ladykillers is a bit of musical trickery: an amazing montage in which a baroque concerto metamorphoses into a gospel song, which segues into a hip-hop number, then back to the gospel and then back to baroque.” –David Edelstein, Slate
O Brother Where Art Thou
“There are no original compositions here (though Burnett is given a “music by” credit usually reserved for composers), and the characters do not generally break into stylized song and dance numbers (as they do in, say,
Everyone Says I Love You). But nearly every scene in O Brother is set to a period song, and the music frequently drives and defines the action.” –Evan Carter, AllMusic
The Big Lebowski (U.S., 1998)
“Lebowski’s approach differs sharply from, say Boogie Nights, whose song score served as Greek chorus. ‘I didn’t want to use anything that commented specifically on the people or looked down on or really stood outside of them,’ says producer T Bone Burnett, the Coens’ ‘music archivist.’ ‘It was, “What does Dude put on just after he’s made love?” He’d come in, smoke a J, do a little tai chi, have a White Russian, listen to Captain Beefheart. That’s a man after my own heart,’ Burnett laughs. “Someone I can look up to.’” – Chris Willman, Entertainment Weekly