USA TODAY -- In late September,Joel and Ethan Coen's folk-music dramaInside Llewyn Davismade its U.S. premiere at the New York Film Festival, but a select group of local audiences got an even bigger treat than the movie itself: The next day, a concert featuring music from the film, out Friday, took place at Town Hall. Stars of the movie, including Oscar Isaac, John Goodman andCarey Mulligan, graced the stage alongside the likes ofJoan Baez, Elvis Costello and the Punch Brothers.
But the four-hour show, titledAnother Day, Another Timeand scheduled to be broadcast on Showtime on Dec. 13, featured a lot more than the 14 folk tunes included on theLlewyn Davissoundtrack. In the opening minutes, before anyone said a word, the Punch Brothers performed a pitch-perfect rendition of Bob Nolan'sTumbling Tumbleweeds, which famously sets the scene at the start of the Coen brothers' cult favoriteThe Big Lebowski.
This staple set the stage for selections from the more recent film: Isaac, who plays a fictionalized version of early-'60s folk singerDave Van Ronk, joined the Punch Brothers for a rendition ofFare Thee Wellarranged by Marcus Mumford andT Bone Burnett, who produced the movie's soundtrack along with the Coens. Elsewhere, Isaac joined his co-star Adam Driver for the comical pop songPlease Mr. Kennedy, which serves as the movie's most memorable, irreverent set piece.
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With a lively mixture of old and new material, the concert reflected the way thatInside Llewyn Davisexists in the context of a much larger musical world that the Coens have created over the course of 30 years of making movies.
The siblings' best works, from their early film noir taleBlood Simplethrough theirCormac McCarthyadaptationNo Country for Old Men, root the struggles of desperate men and women in the lonely, expansive landscape of the American frontier. Their adaptation of the Charles Portis novelTrue Gritmarked their only take on the traditional Western, in which characters engage in life-or-death battles fueled by personal vendettas. But virtually all Coen brothers characters fight to recognize their personal desires above all else. In a purely abstract sense, the urge of the bumbling anti-hero to run a successful business inHudsucker Proxyisn't so far removed from the ill-conceived kidnapping scheme inFargoor the vain attempts to complete a screenplay inBarton Fink. The Coen brothers are among the great modern chroniclers of the search for realizing the American dream.
Since so many of their movies center on a precise mythology rooted in the nation's history, it's no surprise that several of their movies feature quintessentially American music as well. BeforeLlewyn Davis, which uses folk music to explore the plight of the unemployed artist in the early days of Kennedy-era bohemia,O Brother, Where Art Thou?offered an expressionistic take on Depression-era America by using bluegrass compositions to unearth the poetry in a crumbling world.Llewyn Davispersonalizes that lyrical vision of American decay with its titular main character, whose opening and closing renditions of the traditional folk tuneHang Me, Oh Hang Meputs his solitary issues in the context of a pre-existing song that speaks to more than just his own grief. Viewed collectively, the movies show how American strife isn't connected to a single moment in history but rather a universal experience.
O Brother, Where Art Thou?andLlewyn Davisaren't conventional musicals, but they apply music in a similar fashion, by revealing the internal lives of their characters and allowing us to experience their emotions through the power of well-defined melodies. This is an especially potent equation inLlewyn Davis, as Isaac's character spends much of the movie drifting from place to place in hopes of landing new gigs or even an album; it's no spoiler to reveal that he's enmeshed in a lost cause, because Llewyn gave up on his hopes a long time ago. You can hear the beauty and the tragedy of that reality whenever he stops whining to the people around him and picks up the guitar.
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