Tag Archives: The Coen Brothers

Rocks In The Attic #806: Various Artists – ‘Inside Llewyn Davis (O.S.T.)’ (2013)

RITA#806“What does the ‘N’ stand for?”

Inside Llewyn Davis is another latter day gem from the Coen brothers. Coming straight off the success of 2010 western remake True Grit, this film finds them exploring the pre-folk explosion music scene in Greenwich Village in the early 1960s.

Oscar Isaac plays the titular character, a down-on-his-luck folk singer earning just enough to keep him going from couch to couch, while he chases a lucky break. The Coens paint a painfully bleak picture of New York heading into winter, as life and responsibility begin to take their toll on Llewyn.

RITA#806aThe soundtrack, produced by the Coens with T. Bone Burnett, is, as usual, superb. The starting point for the character of Llewyn Davis is Dave Van Ronk, a contemporary of Bob Dylan, and so the soundtrack features several songs associated with Van Ronk, many of which are performed by Isaac. The cover of Davis’ poorly selling solo album, the Inside Llewyn Davis from the title, is a direct replica of Van Ronk’s album Inside Dave Van Ronk, minus the peeking cat, and the film strikes just the right balance of Davis just missing out on stardom as Van Ronk did. Right place, wrong time.

It has been reported that the Coens view the music of Inside Llewyn Davis as a direct descendant of the music in O Brother, Where Art Thou? It’s not hard to hear this connection: there’s definitely a country folk / travelling tale ethos in the songwriting; pure folk from the well, before folk-rock muddied the water. The music is so beautiful, and well performed, that it’s almost heartbreaking to see a despondent Davis catch a glimpse of Dylan in the film’s closing scene. The folk music world is about to turn on its axis, and Llewyn Davis, like Dave Van Ronk, is not going to be at the forefront of the charge.

I’m a huge fan of True Grit and The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs, but Inside Llewyn Davis is definitely my favourite of the Coens’ output from this decade. Hail, Caesar! didn’t do anything for me, and we’re unlikely to see another film from them until their adaption of Macbeth, starring Denzel Washington and Coen-alumn / spouse Frances McDormand, which is only in pre-production at the time of writing.

RITA#806bIt is the bleak and gloomy atmosphere of Inside Llewyn Davis that resonates with me the most. This onslaught of misery only lets up for a brief couple of minutes when Davis is contracted to play and sing on a studio session – the side-splitting novelty song Please Mr. Kennedy – alongside Justin Timberlake’s effervescent Jim Berkey and Adam Driver’s no-nonsense Al Cody. It’s the film’s rare moment of illumination, and potentially a lucky break for our protagonist, but his circumstances dictate that he takes a one-off payment for the work, thereby writing off any chances of receiving any of the song’s eventual royalties.

Like a lot of the Coens’ work, the film has a weird streak running through it: the elusive ginger cat echoes the peeling wallpaper of Barton Fink or the pencil-strewn anxiety of Jerry Lundegaard’s falsified loan form in Fargo; a small obsession that ultimately means nothing. And perhaps most interesting of all, the Coens’ mastery of character and narrative expertly maneuvers an unseen character in the film: the cruel hand of fate that leads Llewyn Davis in one direction and opens the door to somebody else.

Hit: Hang Me, Oh Hang Me – Oscar Isaac

Hidden Gem: Please Mr. Kennedy – Justin Timberlake, Oscar Isaac & Adam Driver

RITA#806c

Rocks In The Attic #516: Carter Burwell – ‘Raising Arizona / Blood Simple (O.S.T.)’ (1987)

RITA#516aI was so happy to see this record looking back at me from the racks at Real Groovy. The soundtrack section is always my favourite place in a record shop, and Real Groovy’s never disappoints. I’ve found heaps of killer soundtracks there ever since I first visited the shop on my first trip to New Zealand in 2006.

There are some films you just don’t expect to find soundtracks for though. The Coen Brothers might have started their assault on Hollywood in the 1980s – the golden age of film soundtracks on vinyl – but for some reason I’d never expected to find any of their film soundtracks to add to my collection. Part of the reason is that their films are so highbrow, I just wouldn’t expect there to be any merchandising connected to the films. It’s not like you see guys wearing Hudsucker Proxy or Barton Fink t-shirts down at the local mall.

Raising Arizona was the first Coen Brothers films I saw. Its long-term effect on me firmly places it as my favourite of theirs. The film is probably more responsible than any other film for guiding me towards my cinematic likes and dislikes. There are some Coen Brothers films I love and some I just like, but there aren’t really any I dislike. Even films that they seem to be making for themselves, like the recent Hail Caesar, are still vastly superior and more entertaining than most of the formulaic bullshit to come out of Hollywood.

RITA#516bI remember seeing their debut Blood Simple relatively early on in my Coens-watching lifetime. It might have been the third film of theirs I saw after Raising Arizona and (probably) Fargo. I wasn’t ready to see it at that young age though. It washed over me and I didn’t really appreciate it. I gave it another chance about a year ago and it blew me away. A subtle, nourish thriller, one of its most haunting aspects is the moody score by Carter Burwell. Burwell would go on to score all of the Coen’s later works – an integral ingredient in their filmmaking process.

This record splits the two soundtracks – Blood Simple and Raising Arizona – over a single disc, giving a side to each film. You wouldn’t expect the two scores to have come from the same person. The brooding melancholy of Blood Simple is a million miles away from the yodelling banjos and heavenly synths of Raising Arizona.

Hit: Way Out ThereRaising Arizona

Hidden Gem: Crash And Burn Blood Simple

Rocks In The Attic #349 Bob Dylan – ‘Another Side Of Bob Dylan’ (1964)

RITA#349I like this stage of Dylan’s back catalogue: completely solo, pre-electric, and just before his fame got in the way. But Another Side is probably my least favourite of his first four albums. To me, it’s his Beatles For Sale – he sounds stuck in a rut with nothing particularly innovative on offer. A change of direction is on the horizon, but not just yet. Well, at least he didn’t resort to rewriting children’s nursery rhymes like Lennon and McCartney did in their desperation to get an album together in time for Christmas 1964.

I’ve just watched the latest Coen brothers’ film, Inside Llewyn Davis – about a struggling folk singer in New York’s Greenwich Village in the early ‘60s. As well as a perfect of the time novelty song – Please Mr. Kennedy – which I laughed at more than anything else I’ve seen in a long time, I really enjoyed the ending of the film where (SPOILER ALERT!) Dylan is glanced at, just as the film’s titular protagonist is about to give it all up and missing out while folk explodes into mainstream America.

There’s an element of openness to the ending that I liked. You don’t get to fully find out whether Davis calls it a day. In the final scene, he gets a beating for heckling a performer the night before, and that might be enough for some people to think twice about their options. But Davis’ character was loosely based on Dave Van Ronk, a contemporary of Dylan’s, who did go on to have a career in the folk boom of the mid- to late-‘60s, although nowhere nearly as successful.

I like to think that Davis didn’t quit – but maybe that’s the muso optimist in me. In the past I’ve had to quit a few things as a guitarist – some bands, some partnerships. Sometimes you just have to. The regretful thing is that I feel by moving to New Zealand, I’ve quit being a musician completely. I looked into joining / starting a band when I first moved here, but I could never find any other like-minded people. Everybody just wanted to play New Zealand music. Musicians here are blinded by a parochial mindset that I’ve never encountered anywhere else.

There is good Kiwi music out there, but it’s few and far between. That’s why nobody outside of New Zealand has ever heard of Dave Dobbyn or Anika Moa. Even Shihad are at best a whisper of a memory in the minds of overseas rock fans. World famous in New Zealand is just that – it’s mean to be an amusing way of embracing the country’s size and limitations, but it ends up being Kiwi music’s epitaph. And why would that ever change? The most successful musical export of this country was Crowded House – a band so to blame for putting New Zealand into the artistic middle-of-the-road, that it’s not surprising that foreign drivers have so much difficulty remembering to drive on the left when they get here. Even tall poppies like Lorde are derided by Kiwi music critics, because her music is so typically un-Kiwi, and how dare she achieve worldwide fame without playing barbeque reggae or singing about Dominion Road.

Still…Slice Of Heaven, what a tune!

Hit: It Ain’t Me Babe

Hidden Gem: I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met)