Of all the films in contention for the Academy Awards, none is pushing its musical element stronger than CBS Films’ “Inside Llewyn Davis.” Commercials for the Coen brothers’ tale of a fictional folk singer knocking around Greenwich Village in 1961 have focused on executive music producer T Bone Burnett, the inspiration found in the cover of Bob Dylan’s “Freewheelin'” and the music performed by the film’s star Oscar Isaac, Marcus Mumford and others.
Isaac, in his first starring role, portrays Davis, whose musical style is based on folk legend Dave Van Ronk. It helped that he had been in bands prior to getting the role, but he tells Billboard he had never ventured into folk music prior to the film.
“I grew up listening to Dylan but I didn’t know this particular kind of music,” he tells Billboard. “So I had to find my way in.”
He discussed the role, the Coen brothers and his entry points into the folk music that came before “Blowin’ in the Wind.”
If the music was unfamiliar to you where did you start to try to learn?
In the initial audition, everyone had to play ‘Hang Me’ and they sent Dave Van Ronk’s version. Since that was the only thing I had to go on, I listened to everything he had ever recorded and tried to play those songs. I really fell in love with his style of playing and the songs he would sing. He would find old songs and rearrange them.
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Like so many of his contemporaries they would dig into something like Harry Smith’s “Anthology of American Folk Music” and learn from those recordings from the ’20s and 30s. Did you reach back to Van Ronk’s influences?
Absolutely. I actually learned a lot of songs not used in the film. “Green Rocky Road” I learned on my own and we wound up putting it in the film. “Cocaine” by Rev. Gary Davis was another one. (Mississippi John Hurt’s) “Candy Man,” “St James Infirmary” – Van Ronk’s version. I learned his arrangement of “Mack the Knife,” which is very aggressive and he actually uses a verse rarely used that was in the original Kurt Weill verses. “Kentucky Moonshiner” was another one.
You finished the film nearly a year ago but in nearly all of the promotion for it you’ve been brought back in as your character. Being around this music now and performing it live, do you look at it differently than when you shot the film?
There’s a reason (folk music) is protest music. It’s so direct when it’s done honestly. It can be so simple yet so effective. And the idea that it carries history with it; it’s music that springs from a place of desperation. What I like about the movie is that it is a song. The movie is not a representation of 1961 Greenwich Village, it’s not a re-creation. The Coens did what folk musicians would do — they took an old thing that has been passed down and they add their imagination and fill it and make it something new.
When did you become aware that you would be playing this character onstage alongside other musicians?
I don’t think anybody knew going in, but I thought it was cool. I love playing music [and] T Bone and the Coens don’t get squares — they get amazing people to perform. It’s funny. They’ve taken the idea of promotion and made something beautiful.
You’re obviously referring to music-driven events in New York and Los Angeles and the Telluride Film festival. What has been the highlight?
Being backstage at the Town Hall in New York. To be next to Patti Smith, Joan Baez and Jack White and the Punch Brothers, Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, everyone playing and communing together just for ourselves. The fact that I could be there and contribute, I think that was a real profound moment for me.