A Coen Brothers screenplay, especially in the hands of the right actor, can sound like a symphony.
Think about Coen collaborators of the past. John Goodman, John Turturro, Frances McDormand, George Clooney and Steve Buscemi all acted as the finest conductors, knowing the crescendos and adagios of Joel and Ethan Coen’s dialogue. They instinctively understand when to speed up, to slow down … or to completely stop, for maximum effect. The great Roger Deakins may give the co-directors gorgeous visual palettes on which to play. But you can simply listen to a Coen Brothers movie and enjoy the storytelling on a spiritual level.
That fact becomes even more significant when the siblings structure their humane tragi-comedies around actual music, as they currently do in the melancholic starving-artist tale, Inside Llewyn Davis (which opens in limited release on Dec. 6). Oscar Isaac and, occasionally, a cat maneuver the mean streets of Greenwich Village in 1961, strumming his way to the next potential break while he deals with wave after wave of personal problems. A girl he slept with (Carey Mulligan) is pregnant. His folk-singing partner committed suicide. He has no place to lay his head, and it’s freezing outside.
Basically, his life is a folk song, and the music of the Lower East Side at that time is woven into the fabric of Llewyn Davis, the movie.
In that way, the Coens’ latest reminds me, on that familiar spiritual level, of one of their greatest stories, and possibly the only other time the brothers have stitched a specific music genre into every frame of their story: O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Oh, music has always been important to the Coen filmography. But in both O Brother and Llewyn Davis, the music acts as an individual character in the colorful ensemble. In these selected tunes lie road maps to important themes and conversations. It's through song that characters in these stories are able to express their joys, their sorrows, their frustrations and their fears. And the music, in these worlds, is sacred … which is part of the reason why Everett, Pete and Delmar are drawn to a siren song, or Llewyn explodes with anger when someone else tries to sing his late partner’s harmonies in their signature duet. The song is theirs. It’s as much a part of them as their souls, and to try to co-opt it wold be blasphemy.
The comparison first clicked when I read that the Coens were hosting a concert event for the Llewyn Davis soundtrack. And why not? The album is a celebration of folk despair, punctuated by one bizarre hit aimed at President John F. Kennedy. But it reminded me of the hoopla surrounding the O Brother soundtrack, which went platinum (eight times over), won the Grammy Award for Album of the Year, and single-handedly revitalized bluegrass. Bluegrass! Try doing THAT in 2013.
So I pulled O Brother off the shelf, and revisited it for the first time in years, and noticed how prevalent the music is in the background – and foreground – of every sequence. The dusty, arid South gives Clooney, Turturro and the cartoonish Tim Blake Nelson a memorable Bible-Belt "big Top" to traipse through. But it’s the persistent bed of bluegrass music that maintains the tone of the Coens’ hysterically exaggerated action, lifting us up or putting us down as the story seems fit.
In a way, I’m glad these exercises are rare. It’s almost as if the Coens find characters with whom they’re compelled to spend a great deal of time with, and happen to strike on a series of musical numbers that can backdrop the journey. They make brilliant mix tapes tailored to these specific stories. It’s not necessary for every Coen film to have a backbeat. But when the music and the movie fall in lock step, as they did with O Brother and do with Llewyn Davis, you can’t help but hum along.