LOS ANGELES – With nominations from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and the Broadcast Film Critics Association in the span of a week, not to mention being a stand-out track on the year’s prestige “musical,” produced by recent Academy Award winner T Bone Burnett with pop superstar Justin Timberlake on the mic, you would think “Please Mr. Kennedy” from the Coen brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis” was on a collision course with Oscar. But due to stricter AMPAS rules, the tune will not be on the list of songs eligible to compete in the Best Original Song category at this year’s Academy Awards.
That’s no skin off Burnett’s back.
“When we started this film, it wasn’t like we said, ‘Let’s write one to make sure we have something for the Academy,'” the slick-haired icon says outside a Brentwood bakery one afternoon. “It’s not something that comes into your mind. The conversation is so pure, I guess. There are strict rules but that’s good. There should be strict rules. You don’t have to win an award for everything you do.”
The idea for the song started with consideration of Tom Lehrer, “the great American song satirist of the last century,” Burnett recalls. Lehrer produced a song in 1965 called “Wernher von Braun” which was a satire of the eponymous rocket scientist about his cavalier attitude toward the consequences of his work in Nazi Germany. Burnett and the Coens wanted something in the film with that sort of levity and high energy.
“I think Ethan came up with ‘Please Mr. Kennedy Don’t Send Me Off to Vietnam,’ which was funny enough in itself,” Burnett recalls. “That’s an attempt to write a Tom Lehrer song or something. But it was based on a completely insane novelty song called ‘Mr. Custer’ that was part of the Brill Building world. Funny song.”
“Mr. Custer” was a 1960 Larry Verne ditty written by Al DeLory about a soldier’s plea to General George Armstrong Custer in the Battle of Little Big Horn not to send him off into battle. It was parodied one year later by Jim Nesbitt with “Please Mr. Kennedy,” about blue collar America reaching out to the President for a helping hand. Then there was Mickey Woods’ 1962 Motown track, also called “Please Mr. Kennedy” about a Vietnam draftee pleading with the President not to ship him away until his girlfriend marries him (because he’s convinced she’ll run off with another man while he’s away).
All of it fed Burnett and the Coens’ imaginations. So taking an amalgam of the space race commentary of “Wernher von Braun” and the comedic image of reluctant soldiers and frontiersmen, they came up with “Please Mr. Kennedy… Don’t You Shoot Me Into Outer Space.”
“The guy doesn’t want to go,” Burnett says with a laugh. “He’s just got a bad feeling about this! Then I just wrote a couple of pages of lyrics, like Ogden Nash couplets. Most of it ended up in the song.”
Nevertheless, with the refrain of “I don’t want to go” (a throwback to the Verne and Woods tracks), among other pastiche considerations, nixed it from consideration by the Academy. Knowing the originality that did go into the track, however, that might seem unjust in some way. But Burnett is apologetic.
“I really love and respect the Academy’s categories,” he says. “It needs to be protected because it’s a very specific art. You can’t start calling it just anything, any music at all. There are questions about originality and I understand. It’s a much more complex kind of world we’re living in now, so I understand people questioning the categories. But that’s an interesting subject in this age of sampling and post-modernism.”
And indeed, the song came together under the very spirit celebrated by the film. “There was an original song called ‘Mr. Custer,’ which was a big hit,” Burnett reviews. “And then there was a parody of ‘Mr. Custer’ called ‘Please Mr. Kennedy.’ And then there was another parody of ‘Mr. Custer,’ which may have been a parody of ‘Please Mr. Kennedy.’ So this is a take-off on a parody of a satire; it’s well on down the road. But that’s folk. That’s what it is.”
With the song pretty much written, it was time to apply music. And that’s where Timberlake’s contribution became invaluable. The pop star and Burnett went out to Norm’s Rare Guitars in the San Fernando Valley to pick up an instrument suitable for Timberlake’s character in the film. As soon as they purchased it, the singer was eager to write the track.
“As soon as we were in the office he just started writing it,” Burnett recalls. “He had his guitar. There was no reason to wait another second, and he just wrote that groove and that vibe. He’s the one who sent it into this Coasters vibe, because, you know, folk music didn’t swing. It was never sex music. It was always very straight, church music, maybe. Not out of the whorehouse, really. And Justin was able to take that little song to the whorehouse, and that helped!”
All of the hilarious stuff coming out of Adam Driver’s mouth during the recording of the song in the film? That’s all him and Ethan. Ethan in particular kept coming up with funny noises and sounds to spice up the track.
“They were jamming on that stuff,” Burnett says. “Adam’s fearless. That guy, he’s gonna be around for a long time. We were auditioning people – I hadn’t seen ‘Girls’ yet. I hadn’t seen him at all. I knew he was in a play off Broadway. But there were two or three people who sang that part really great, and he came in and he didn’t sing at all, really. I mean he did, but you could tell he had never sung. But he didn’t give a fuck and he just came in and sang anyway. It was like, ‘Oh, him,’ immediately.
“Maybe it’s that thing of being a Marine and just walking into fire or something,” he continues, commenting on Driver’s veteran status. “You know, Artaud said that the actor screams through the flames as he burns at the stake. And that’s him right there.”
With all the elements in place, and “Inside Llewyn Davis” star Oscar Isaac in the fold for the back-up and the “puh puhs,” Burnett and company’s “Please Mr. Kennedy” came into being. You can understand why the pastiche disqualifies it, but it would be nice if there could still be a category where adaptation work like this is recognized.
“Marvin Hamlisch won for Best Adapted Score for ‘The Sting,'” Burnett points out. “And they still have that category. There’s just no field anymore. But what is this? Is this is a song score? I don’t need to define it. And by the way, I’ve gotten plenty of recognition.”
The list of eligible contenders for this year’s Best Original Song race will be released by the Academy later today.
Have a listen to “Please Mr. Kennedy” for yourself in the video clip embedded at the top of this post.
“Inside Llewn Davis” is currently playing in limited release. It expands wider this Friday.