T Bone Burnett and the music of "Inside Llewyn Davis"

The place was Greenwich Village, the time was long ago. The sound was the strum of folk guitars. It's a bygone musical scene captured in a new movie. Anthony Mason tours with the man "behind the music":

As a music producer, T Bone Burnett knows all about Greenwich Village. In the early '60s, it was the center of an emerging folk music revival.

"There's a lot of history down here," Burnett said. 

"Did you spend a lot of time down here?" asked Mason.

"Yeah, what, 50 years ago? It was a long time ago," he laughed.

It was a time of clubs like Gerde's Folk City (which closed in 1987), and Cafe Wha?, where a young singer from Minnesota, Bob Dylan, would make his New York debut in 1961.

"You know, also in those days they had cabaret laws," said Burnett, "so the reason people snapped [their fingers] is because people lived in these houses. You couldn't clap, it would make too much noise."

And the original Gaslight Cafe (which closed in 1970), located in the basement of 116 MacDougal Street. 

Burnett has helped recreate that Greenwich Village folk scene for the new Coen Brothers film. 

"Inside Llewyn Davis," opens in the Gaslight in 1961, with the fictional title character on stage.

InsideLlewynDavis_gaslightcafe_620.jpg
Oscar Isaac as Llewyn Davis performs in New York City's Gaslight Cafe in 1961, in the Coen Brothers' "Inside Llewyn Davis."
CBS Films

How would Burnett describe the title character as an artist at that time?  "Well, I would say he was very good. I mean, really good."

But he's not widely appreciated. The movies (released by CBS Films) follows a week in the life of the struggling singer.

Brothers Joel and Ethan Coen co-wrote and co-directed the film. Ethan agreed that the challenge of finding the lead actor was daunting, having to find a truly convincing talented musician. "Yeah, that was the casting burden we had," he told Mason.

"Actually, we started by seeing musicians, which was interesting in the audition process," Ethan said, "They'd play a song or two, which was great, and then they'd try a scene or two, which was . . . "

"Not so good," continued Joel. "Yeah, at a certain point we thought we were looking for a needle in a haystack, and it's possible the needle isn't in the haystack."

 WEB EXTRA VIDEO: Click on the player at left to hear T Bone Burnett discuss the selection of songs for "Inside Llewyn Davis" 

But when the little-known actor Oscar Isaac auditioned, they knew they'd found Llewyn Davis.

"If you're telling a story about a musician, I think you have to see something about the character when he plays music, or when he performs music, that he doesn't reveal any other time," said Joel.

When asked if he had to coach Isaac, Burnett replied, "just barely. He says I said to him, 'Sing it like you're singing it to yourself. Sing it like you're singin' a baby to sleep.'"

"'Cause then you're not trying to sell it?" said Mason.

"Yeah, that's right. It's not that thing, like 'Give it to 'em, Jolson!' you know? It's this beautiful, beautiful thing."

WEB EXCLUSIVE: To listen to streaming audio of selections from the "Inside Llewyn Davis" soundtrack, featuring Oscar Issac, Marcus Mumford, and Stark Sands with the Punch Brothers, or to purchase the album, click on the player below.  

 

One of the most acclaimed producers in music, the 65-year-old Burnett is happiest behind the mixing board. 

But in the Seventies, the 6'5" Texan was coaxed on stage by Bob Dylan, when Dylan brought him to the Bitter End in the Village to join his Rolling Thunder Revue. 

Burnett said, "It was my first time to perform on stage, and it was terrifying. 

"About two thirds of the way through the show [Dylan] would stop and say, 'Okay, T Bone, play that song.' And he would build up the most intense attention from the audience. He just dropped me in the middle of it. I had to play this really slow, seven-minute song on the piano while he played bass.

"It was like lesson number one in show business -- and I still don't know what the lesson was!"

"That is a real trial-by-fire," said Mason.

"It was. Having to follow Dylan, that was pretty intense." 

WEB EXTRA VIDEO: Click on the video player at left to hear T Bone Burnett discuss the Greenwich Village music scene in the Sixties.

"What is it about producing for film that is so satisfying?"

"Putting music and image together is a very powerful thing," Burnett said. "And you can completely shift the tone of the story. You can shift the story by shifting the music."

He's collaborated with the Coen Brothers three times before, most notably on the 2000 film, "O Brother, Where Art Thou?," which revived American rural music of the '30s. 

The soundtrack would sell 10 million records. 

Mason said, "I know none of you expected the reaction that the music in 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' got."

"T Bone did," laughed Ethan Coen.

"Oh yeah, yeah," Joel agreed. "We would go into meetings and he would say to, you know, various studio executives, 'You don't understand. This hillbilly music is gonna be the next big thing.' And Ethan and I would sit there quietly but then go out of the office and, 'Really?'

"But T Bone was right!" he laughed.

That same roots music influenced the Greenwich Village scene in the '60s. Artists, like the fictional Llewyn, were trying to return to something authentically American -- even if the commercial potential seemed bleak. 

 

"He was just trying to find an environment, a community, where he could do what he did and stay alive, you know, survive," said Burnett.

In the film, the fictional Llewyn Davis struggles to be heard. But the music, soulful and pure, is irrepressible.


 

 

For more info:

More on "Inside Llewyn Davis":

NYFF Review: The Coen Brothers' "Inside Llewyn Davis"
Carey Mulligan, co-stars talk "Inside Llewyn Davis" at NYFF premiere
Coen Brothers win big, cause upset at Gotham Awards
John Goodman on working with the Coen Brothers


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