This Friday will at long last see the release of the Coen Bros Inside Llewyn Davis, a bittersweet drama about the misadventures of a folk singer banging around Greenwich village circa 1961. The titular hero is a musician who takes himself pretty seriously, but the song that stole the most attention at Inside Llewyn Davis's NYFF debut was an odd little ditty called "Please Mr. Kennedy." HuffPo writer Mike Ryan was particularly enchanted by this (intentionally) off-the-mark protest anthem, and sat down with the film's cast and crew to ask them how it came to be.
The entire oral history he's compiled is absolutely worth the read, but we'll break down the broad strokes for you here. First, it might help to watch the video clip of this song, which features performances from Isaac, Adam Driver, and Justin Timberlake as a trio thrown together for a quick record session.
This number elicited giggles and guffaws from the audience at NYFF because it plays as such a silly counterpoint to the music Davis is driven to make. But the guy's broke. So here we are: Outer. Space. Within the film, the song is meant to be bad, like it's missing the boat on what a protest song should be. Of course, the Coens take the music in their movies very seriously, as we saw with the blue grass use in O Brother Where Art Thou!. So when Joel and Ethan needed someone to craft gorgeous and narratively driven folk songs for this period piece, they called on Academy Award-winning songwriter T-Bone Burnett, whose made heartbreaking songs for Cold Mountain, Crazy Heart and The Hunger Games.
But writing a well-crafted bad song is deceptively tricky. "It is a joke song, but here's the thing," Burnett shared, "even if a song is supposed to be bad in a film, it still has to be great. Because if you put bad music in a film, it's just bad -- then the film's bad. You can put good music in a film and say it's bad and the audience will believe it's bad, but it will still be good and they will still be entertained by it, even though they're told it's bad. And, on top of it, underneath all of that, it really is great."
Burnett said his inspiration was a satirical song called "Please Mr. Kennedy Don't Send Me Off to Vietnam," from there he wrote ten verses in a sort of Ogden Nash style. Then he and Timberlake visited a rare guitar shop to pick out the pop star's movie guitar. In that very shop, the pair wrote the beginnings of the melody with Timberlake singing this early draft of the lyrics. Before filming began, Burnett directed Driver, Isaac, and Timberlake in a recording studio to test out some variant recordings, then sent them to the Coens. From here the verses evolved. Burnett said,
"All of the verses I think became the amalgam of stuff we had all written. I couldn't say who wrote what now. I sort of wrote the original framework and then Ethan would take the lines he liked and re-rhyme them or re-word them -- things like that -- write a new line or write a new verse. I think we kept throwing it around for a few weeks -- even as we were in the studio recording it."
From this experimentation phase came the decision to have Driver do sound effects, a trend at the time. Burnett detailed, " I started doing a doo-wop, but that's all I did. I did it maybe one time and then he picked that up and then Ethan would say, "Now go 'outer space,'' -- the way Adam read the lines, we would just feed him things and he would take off with them… He is fearless. Adam Driver is not always trying to get on his best side, you know?" (No wonder he's blowing up right now.)
Wild as it is, the film's performance--complete with an international pop icon--wasn't even the highest point for "Please Mr. Kennedy." Days after its NYFF premiere, the song was performed at a live concert by Isaac, Driver and the one and only Elvis Costello, filling in for Timberlake at Another Day Another Time. And if you missed that one, don't worry. Showtime is bringing it to home entertainment on December 13th. Inside Llewyn Davis opens in theaters on December 6th.