It’s tricky to do a movie soundtracks well. How many movies have you watched that simply throw out a slew of the latest Top 40 hits on top of the film’s most dramatic scenes? Of course, not every director settles for such crowd-pleasing musical accompaniment; directors like Cameron Crowe, Wes Anderson, and Zach Braff have garnered praise for the trendy and carefully selected playlists that accompany their films. But perhaps no director (or, in this case, pair of directors) has recently made as strong a cultural impact with their movie soundtracks as Joel and Ethan Coen. The soundtrack to their 2000 comedy O Brother, Where Art Thou? became a minor cultural phenomenon, launching something of a bluegrass revival and going on to win the Grammy for Album of the Year in 2002.
Now, the Coen brothers are at it again with their next film, Inside Llewyn Davis, which comes out on December 20. Trailers for the film suggest that music and live performance will play a major part in the film, which follows an aspiring folk musician (played by Drive’s Oscar Isaac) trying to make it in the 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene.
The soundtrack for Llewyn Davis—released for streaming via NPR last week—is produced by T. Bone Burnett, who also took the helm of the O Brother soundtrack. But the Coens are also tapping into a slightly younger influence this time in Marcus Mumford (the lead singer of Mumford & Sons), brought on board as associate music producer for the film. Despite the fact that the soundtrack combines covers of traditional folk songs with more contemporary cuts from folk stalwarts like Bob Dylan and Dave van Ronk, there’s a youthfulness to the collection. O Brother was all about celebrating the roots of American music, but while Inside Llewyn Davis is set just a few decades later, the move towards innovation and modernity in its soundtrack is clear. From actor Stark Sands’ plainspoken and simple “The Last Thing on My Mind” to The Downhill Strugglers and John Cohen’s interpretation of “The Roving Gambler”, the songs feel less removed from the folk-inspired music on the radio today.
However, this isn’t just a cut-and-paste collection of soothing folk ditties; the songs all feel like they’re cut from the same cloth, giving the album a familiar, cohesive feel. Perhaps not surprisingly given Llewyn Davis’ setting, the film’s soundtrack brings to mind some of the great film soundtracks of the ’60s that were based around one artist’s work—think Cat Stevens in Harold and Maude or Simon & Garfunkel in The Graduate—despite the variety of voices present on this album.
Of course, the soundtrack does unavoidably sacrifice a bit of its authenticity by having so many covers, both by musicians and actors featured in the film. Several tracks on the album offer solo vocals by Isaac and it’s impressive that he does all of his own singing. But while his voice is certainly very pleasant and above average for someone who’s not a professional singer, it lacks character when you hold it up to some of the other great, craggy voices on the soundtrack. For example, Mumford threatens to overpower Isaac entirely in their gorgeous duet version of “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song)”, which has been featured in trailers for the film.
It will be interesting to see how these songs hold up in context when Inside Llewyn Davis hits theatres—in particular, the purposefully goofy “Please Mr. Kennedy”, which is sung with great commitment by Isaac, Justin Timberlake, and Adam Driver, and which appears to be the film’s sole original song. But regardless of the narrative or construction of the actual film, the movie’s soundtrack is sure to appeal to a wide audience and serves as a gentle tribute to the great music that inspired Inside Llewyn Davis in the first place. MMM½