Review | The Inside Llewyn Davis Soundtrack, Produced by T Bone Burnett

Inside Llewyn Davis Soundtrack - Headstuff.orgVarious Artists

Inside Llewyn Davis Soundtrack

[Warner Music Group]

Joel and Ethan Coen confirm the integral role of traditional and American folk-song in their cinematic auteurship with the melancholic Inside Llewyn Davis. In 2013 the Coen brothers were awarded the prestigious Grand Prix accolade at the Cannes International Film Festival as audiences marvelled at their latest work. The film follows one week in the life of Llewyn Davis, portrayed by Oscar Isaac, a folk singer struggling to achieve musical success in the midst of the Greenwich Village folk-revival in New York throughout the 1960s. Iconic songwriter and record producer T Bone Burnett produces a formidable and resonant compilation soundtrack as the Coens encompass traditional and American folk-song as the overarching narrative context of the film.

In a similar fashion to O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), Burnett employs a combination of both traditional music (recognised as music without a credited author) as well as contemporary folk-song within the setting of the film itself. The Coen brothers adorn Inside Llewyn Davis with a variety of prominent musical figures of the aforementioned Greenwich Village folk-revival. For example, original recordings of Hedy West’s Five Hundred Miles as well as Ewan MacColl’s The Shoals of Herring accent the Coen’s desired global appreciation of the folk-song genre. Burnett intertwines these popular melodies with more traditional works such as Hang Me, Oh Hang Me and the prominent Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song).

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Joel and Ethan Coen often utilise music for a clear and apparent establishment of setting. Here Burnett’s soundtrack invites the audience into the zeitgeist of the New York music scene during the 1960s. The influx of British and Irish traditional pieces as well as the contemporary presence of folk-song advocates such as Dave Van Ronk, Len Chandler and Robert Kaufman immediately provide a cinematic context of location and setting.


The lyrical content of Inside Llewyn Davis allows Burnett’s soundtrack to play an important role in characterisation, plot progression and the establishment of major narrative themes. The melancholic ambience of the music reflects the inner turmoil of many of the film’s main characters. In fact, the Coen’s presentation of characters to the audience is most truthful and transparent during their musical performances. For example, Jean Barkley’s character portrayed by Carey Mulligan is longing to escape the confines of her loveless relationship and unplanned pregnancy. However her lack of onscreen presence results in her rendition of Five Hundred Miles speaking more about her character than the actual dialogue. Similarly Llewyn Davis’ previous musical collaborator Mike is rarely mentioned throughout the film’s progression. Despite playing an integral role in Davis’ depression and lack of musical success, Mike’s suicide is mentioned briefly in two scenes. Burnett utilises the traditional Fare Thee Well as the predominant representation of this plot extension. Joel Coen commented on this narrative technique stating that “if you’re telling a story about a musician, 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“.

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While once concerned with narrative experimentation with the film noir and slapstick comedy genres, Inside Llewyn Davis sees the Coen brothers abandon much of their established directorial style in favour of a film in which music acts as the sole narrative voice. Gone are the unique and beloved portrayals of blackmail, murder and femme fatales. Gone are the typecast psychos-for-hire, larger than life personalities and numbskull crooks. Gone are the exaggerated dialects, slapstick devices and psychedelic dream sequences. Instead Joel and Ethan Coen present a stubborn, droll humoured protagonist whose life is mirrored in this nostalgic folk-based soundtrack. Inside Llewyn Davis not only carries itself on Burnett’s compilation score but thrives in doing so.


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