A couple of months ago, at the time of Inside Llewyn Davis’ DVD release, respected film critic and general gobby genius Mark Kermode took one of his occasional u-turns to change his previously critical opinion on the Coen brother’s folk tale.
On review date, he had felt that the film’s constituent ingredients (great acting, cinematography and soundtrack) had failed to produce a film that he actually liked. High quality though it was, two watches of the film had failed to make a convert of him to a film that many other critics found to be one of the best of last year.
But when he returned to the DVD for his third watch, something had changed. Away from the grip of awards season, Kermode felt that his third hand experience of it finally transformed it into the film that he thought it should have been.
And do you know what one of the other major reasons behind that change of heart was? The soundtrack. Having it on in the car for months on end between the end of his second watch and the third watch, he had the time to truly appreciate the folksy angle of the Dave Von Rank inspired tale.
Above and beyond
That little vignette is a grand example of precisely why Inside Llewyn Davis’ soundtrack works both within the context of the film, and as a broader piece of work. Music lies at the heart of the piece, and, yet, when divorced from the scenes, it remains capable of creating a long and enduring attachment with the listener.
The reason for that largely comes down to the cast performances. Each of the tracks on the LP is a cover of an early 1960s American folk song – aside from jokey pop song Please Mr Kennedy – yet they boast, for the most part, effective personalities of their own that makes them at least the equal of the originals.
Particular credit goes to Oscar Isaac. Taking on the titular role with a brilliant brand of likeable artistic nastiness, his performance on guitar and vocals on each of the tracks he sings on are regularly remarkable.
From a mournfully different version of Joan Baez’s The Death of Queen Jane to the soaring heights of his duet with Marcus Mumford on Fare Thee Well, Isaac elevates each of his efforts to the heights that he sets early on in both film and soundtrack with the powerful Hang Me, Oh Hang Me.
Yet, he is far from the only performer to emerge with credit from the soundtrack. Casey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake’s Five Hundred Miles is an incredibly effective counterpart to The Journeymen’s original, Stark Sands’ The Last Thing On My Mind is a solidly sing alongable slice of Tom Paxton folk, and the Timberlake, Mumford and Clark efforts on The Auld Triangle is a slice of vocal driven delight.
In fact, it’s hard to really pick too much fault with anything on the soundtrack. Please Mr Kennedy definitely sticks out as an oddly commercial sounding effort, but its importance in underlying one of the film’s overall narrative points and general quality of it as a Beatle’s style rocker gives it room. I personally don’t feel the Dave Von Rank and Bob Dylan studio originals are a necessary end to the LP either, but I can appreciate that to a casual purchaser it can provide some much needed context.
Ultimately though, what stands out about the soundtrack is how much it contrasts with the overall perception of Llewyn Davis in the film. While he is, to be frank, a bit of a cad for much of the running time, the soundtrack remains as likeable and enjoyable to listen to after months of aural exposure.
Understated, marvellously performed, and downright memorable: this is a soundtrack well worth spending time with.