TELLURIDE, Colo. – Given the Coen brothers’ catalog of great American films, they would have been perfectly suited to a tribute unto themselves at this year’s 40th annual Telluride Film Festival. But when you consider Telluride’s connection to music via the annual Bluegrass music festival held in June, the Coens’ collaboration with T Bone Burnett over the years and particularly how that collaboration has reached a peak with this year’s “Inside Llewyn Davis,” honoring them together made way too much sense.
Last night’s tribute unfortunately faced a scheduling nightmare as it was programmed against the sneak previews of “12 Years a Slave” and “Prisoners,” but the turn-out was still solid as former Coen cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld presented the brothers with the Silver Medallion. The Chuck Jones Cinema was all the more packed this morning with film lovers who missed last night’s ceremony, eager to toast the trio. Those filing into the theater were met with the musical stylings of The Americans and the traditional picking quartet also offered up a two-song intro on stage to kick off the event.
Clips were shown representing the Coens’ collaborations with Burnett over the years, including rock from 1998’s “The Big Lebowski,” bluegrass from 2000’s “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” gospel from 2004’s “The Ladykillers” and, of course, folk from “Inside Llewyn Davis.” Variety film critic and moderator for the morning, Scott Foundas, started with the obvious question: What were the formative musical experiences for these three?
In the case of Burnett, he wanted to know about Cole Porter from a very early age after digging into countless 78s in his parents’ house. “I spent a lot of time down there in that dream world,” he said. “There were these songs that were so evocative…all of these universes that were created by just these three men and songs. It was really a pretty amazing thing.”
Joel Coen mentioned Pete Seeger but also, being land-locked in Minnesota throughout his childhood, said he found something incredibly romantic about sea shanties. And when it came to his brother, “Big Bill Broonzy blew my little kid brain,” Ethan said. “I’m still getting over that.”
From there talk shifted to how the filmmaker siblings have used music in their films over the years. It’s interesting how Burnett came to be involved with them. After seeing “Raising Arizona” he decided “I’ve either got to talk to these people or get them out of my head,” he said. It was the only time he had ever cold-called someone. He was quite taken by how they used music in the film, particularly Pete Seeger’s “Ode to Joy.”
With “Lebowski,” each character “seemed to have their own musical genre,” Ethan said. The film is obviously inspired by the work of golden age musical director Busby Berkeley, and indeed, Joel mentioned that he was very fond of the director’s work, from “Dames” to “Gold Diggers of 1935.”
As for “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” Burnett’s influence was greatly noticed, all the way to four Grammys. The success of that film’s American folk/bluegrass soundtrack inspired the “Down from the Mountain” concert benefit and tour that was a raging success. “Me and Joel were totally surprised [by that success],” Ethan said. “T Bone is the only one in the world who was not.”
Burnett noted that similar plans are in store for the “Inside Llewyn Davis” soundtrack contributors following the “Another Day, Another Time” benefit scheduled for next month in New York, proceeds of which will go to something very dear to his heart: sound preservation. One of the wonderful things of late, he said, is that great 21st century artists are interested in going back and recording classic tunes from the early part of the last century. But the truly sad thing about that, he said, is that all of the recordings sound bad. “Help is on the way for that,” he teased, before noting that he’s heavily involved in services for sound preservation much like Martin Scorsese’s involvement with film preservation.
Indeed, by way of introduction, Foundas astutely classified Burnett as an “archaeologist” of American music. This kind of thing flows through Burnett’s veins. At Thursday morning’s patron brunch he giddily told me of the countless pies he has his fingers in at the moment as it pertains to giving a considerable shelf life to this music. His passion for it is unmistakable, and as he sat next to the Coens this morning, he waxed on about how much of the nation’s DNA is found in “pickin’ and singin’,” to steal an “O Brother” phrase.
“The United States has defined itself through music since the very beginning, since ‘The Star Spangled Banner,’ and ‘John Brown’s Body’ in the Civil War,” Burnett said. “It’s our most important cultural artifact, and it’s been our most democratizing act, the fact that we went into the South in the 1930s and 40s and recorded the poorest people in the United States and broadcast their stories around the world. That is the greatest act of democratization we’ve achieved in this country. So all of this music is part of that story.”
“The Ladykillers” was given a bit of short shrift in the discussion but talk focused plenty on “Llewyn Davis.” The Coens were interested in the almost famous story of a Bob Dylan-like figure who never quite made it but was every bit a part of a scene that would ignite. They wanted the musical performances to be shown in full, an entire song, beginning to end, and they wanted the whole thing to have an almost documentary experience to it, they said. So the work would be doubly hard on whoever got the title role.
In Oscar Isaac, they found a huge musical talent driven to achieve the effect they were after. Burnett said Isaac would spend plenty of time away, nailing down the songs so that when it came time to perform on the day, the nerves were gone. The songs were performed live during filming with one mic, making the technical side of the film quite something to behold. But beyond just an authentic technical effect, Isaac provided a lived-in performance of a character that felt every bit as genuine as a result.
“He was able to get into that real moment of a singer’s generosity, giving everything he had,” Burnett said of the actor.
But the movie isn’t just about music, Joel said. “It’s about anything. People who are very talented at something that aren’t necessarily ‘successful,’ in quotation marks, in terms of how the rest of the world perceived them, that was interesting to us.”
And it remains interesting to them, as Ethan revealed that they hope their next film will be about an opera singer. And not only that, with typical quirk, they want it to feature an intermission.
Through music, the Coens have found themselves tapping a number of genres and forms, with Burnett as a steward through much of it. Foundas asked if there was a risk in re-appropriation and telling stories with a vintage hue, that the work could become kitsch. But all involved said they don’t think in those terms. It’s more about appreciation than appropriation.
“We don’t do camp or comment or anything,” Ethan said. “For us it comes from an affection for those forms and wanting to do them yourself — not to spoof the form but to do the form.”
With that in mind, when asked what it was that made them want to be filmmakers, the siblings had a classic Coen answer at the ready. Ethan recalled reading an interview with Mick Jagger once upon a time in which the Rolling Stones frontman was asked why he was still performing. Jagger said he got up on stage when he was a kid, made a fool of himself, and no one told him to stop. So he kept doing it. Joel’s answer was along the same lines and sums up the duo’s attitude toward what they do quite well.
“When we were 12 and 13 years old, we would see ‘The Naked Prey’ on television with Cornel Wilde and we’d go out in the backyard with a Super 8 camera and make it the next day,” he said. “Literally we were just fuckin’ around. And we still feel like we’re just fuckin’ around.”
“Inside Llewyn Davis” will play throughout the Telluride film fest. It opens in limited release on Dec. 6.