Review Summary: While perhaps not quite as successful as the soundtrack to O’Brother, Where Art Thou?, Inside Llewyn Davis is a nice compilation of songs that greatly contribute to the success of the film.
Film soundtracks are often a difficult thing to appreciate for their own merits. Music that is crafted or compiled specifically to accompany a visual experience can make for an uneven listen when heard out of context of “the viewing experience.” The Coen Brothers, who are responsible for some of the most acclaimed films of the last couple decades, have clearly put a great deal of thought into the musical aspects of their work as well. Take 2000’s O’Brother, Where Art Thou"
for example. The film’s use of southern bluegrass, gospel, and folk songs were a major component of the movie and producer T Bone Burnett’s hand in the production helped to elevate the soundtrack to garner perhaps as much sales and recognition as the film itself did.
Last year’s Inside Llewyn Davis
was similar in the respect that the film was heavily influenced by its musical arrangement. T Bone Burnett’s production elements are all in place and are used with similar effect to that of O’Brother’s. Unlike that record’s use of a variety of musicians however, this soundtrack is mostly rooted in the soulful croons of lead actor Oscar Isaac, who serves as the film’s struggling protagonist during the 1961 folk movement in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Your enjoyment of the soundtrack and probably even the film itself will depend on how much you enjoy Isaac as both a musician and a character.
The opener “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” is a heartfelt piece that perfectly captures the tone of the entire soundtrack, save for a few oddballs which I’ll discuss in a moment. The acoustic ballads that pepper the record are beautifully composed, giving the listener an intimate connection with Isaac’s performance. The guest features work with varying degrees of success. Marcus Mumford is clearly a good folk singer, contributing vocals to several of the tracks here, but perhaps not the best when you’re aiming for a more traditional ‘60s folk sound. The same could be said for Justin Timberlake’s performance which gives the record some popish sensibilities that tend to feel somewhat out of place from time to time. Still he manages to deliver a catchy and even beautiful vocal performance on “Five Hundred Miles” alongside Carey Mulligan’s gorgeous delivery. The inclusion of Bob Dylan’s unreleased b-side from The Times They Are A Changin’
is excellent in its own right, but heard here really sets itself apart from the contemporary pieces that dominate the record. It's a stark contrast which the filmmakers probably didn’t intend. Dave Van Ronk, the folk artist that allegedly inspired Oscar Isaac’s character in the film, ends the soundtrack with “Green, Green Rocky Road,” a song that actually makes Isaac’s version of the same track sound pretty authentic when heard side by side.
The one song really holding the soundtrack back from being able to stand on its own is “Please Mr. Kennedy.” This satirical number was used in the film to show the differences between Isaac’s character’s heartfelt compositions and the rise of the corporate music takeover. When heard in the context of the film it makes sense but on record it's jarring and takes the listener completely out of the established mood of the overall experience for several minutes. Ironically the song was nominated for this year’s Best Original Song category at the Academy Awards, which speaks volumes to the way in which corporate music still dominates the industry today. Even the Oscar snobs didn’t have the decency to select one of the finer cuts from the soundtrack. But the song clearly makes its point in this way.
While perhaps not quite as successful as the soundtrack to O’Brother…
, Inside Llewyn Davis
is a nice compilation of songs that greatly contribute to the success of the film. The music here is a spiritual successor to the music on the O’Brother soundtrack, with perhaps more emphasis on emotional resonance. If you can get past the fact that these are songs meant to mimic a half a century old musical movement in the age of wi-fi and cell phones, you’ll probably find much to appreciate here.