Speakerfone is a recurring column that focuses on music in movies.
Play us a song from "Inside Llewyn Davis" -- then add in another 40 or so classic folk songs, and invite a group of legendary musicians to come and perform them. The result: a star-studded, multi-generational event that pays tribute to a new film and its source material.
Last night in New York City, A-listers, journalists, and a small group of fans who were lucky enough to snag tickets online, came out to celebrate the newest Coen brothers movie at the legendary Town Hall in Midtown Manhattan. Over the course of three hours, a rotating cast of artists performed a wide range of standard folk tunes, along with tracks from the "Inside Llewyn Davis" soundtrack. Overseeing the three-plus-hour production was the man responsible for the film's music: songwriter, producer, and frequent Coen brothers collaborator T. Bone Burnett.
"Inside Llewyn Davis," which premiered this past May at the Cannes Film Festival, follows the journey of a young New York City-based folk singer (played with aplomb by Oscar Isaac) who's looking to launch his solo career. The movie takes place in the pre-Bob Dylan era of Greenwich Village, before the major record labels came swooping in, looking to turn small anti-establishment artists into stars.
Recreating any movie's spirit on stage is next to impossible -- films are fractured affairs shot over several months then pored over and painstakingly re-assembled in editing suites. However, last night, Burnett managed to get as close to "Llewyn Davis'"s entertaining and accurate depiction of the 1960s folk scene as possible, thanks to a who's who of musical talent who came out to perform. Here's a truncated list of those who were on the bill:
Elvis Costello, Patti Smith, Joan Baez, Jack White, Gillian Welch, The Avett Brothers, Colin Meloy, Conor Oberst, Marcus Mumford, Adam Driver, and Rhiannon Giddens. (Stars spotted in the audience included Paul Rudd, Edgar Wright, Taran Killam, Susan Sarandon, Julianne Moore, Jesse Eisenberg, and Carla Gugino.)
The night had a long list of memorable performances (you'll be able to see the show in full when the concert airs on Showtime in December): Patti Smith and Joan Baez dueting on Smith's "People Have the Power," Baez singing "The House of the Rising Sun," Jack White playing a stripped-down version of "We're Going to Be Friends," and Elvis Costello hopping around the stage with actor Adam Driver in "Please Mr. Kennedy," (a song based on Jim Nesbitt's tune of the same name). That said, some of the evening's best moments belonged to the cast of "Inside Llewyn Davis."
First and foremost was John Goodman. In the film, Goodman -- a frequent Coen collaborator -- plays Roland Turner, a drug-addled jazz musician who isn't into the whole "folk" scene. As the unofficial emcee of last night's festivities, Goodman added a little humor to the event, peppering his introductions with a few 1960s-era jokes, including the oft-repeated one about avoiding the brown acid.
The rest of the cast highlights belonged to a handful of impressive performances by the film's two leads: Carey Mulligan and Oscar Isaac. In "Llewyn Davis," Mulligan, who plays Llewyn's quasi-love interest, Jean, sings "500 Miles" a song popularized by Peter, Paul and Mary. Mulligan has sang on screen before -- she performed "New York, New York" in Steve McQueen's "Shame" -- however, singing on camera and in front of a sold-out crowd are two very different things, a fact she more or less admitted to prior to her first of two performances, where she charmingly stated that the song she was about to sing had "been done by everyone from Peter, Paul and Mary to, well, me. So please give me a big hand." Not that she needed one; Muligan ended up nailing both tunes (the second was "Don't Leave Nobody But the Baby," with Welch and Giddens, an a capella number some Coen brothers' fans may recognize from "O Brother Where Art Thou").
But, like the film, last night led back to Isaac. Despite folk music's deep roots, it's hard to imagine this film going anywhere without Isaac's performance. Watching him sing live, it's easy to see why Joel and Ethan Coen cast him as the lead. Not only is he an exceptional actor, he is a talented guitar player and singer. In fact, Burnett, who has worked with everyone from Elton John to Bob Dylan, had this to say about Isaac: "I don't think any actor has ever learned to play and sing a repertoire this thoroughly and compellingly, and be able to film it all live without a click track."
Well, Burnett wasn't kidding. Last night, Isaac performed three songs: "Hang Me, Oh Hang Me," "Green, Green Rocky Road," and "Fare Thee Well." Sure, it is one thing to watch an up-and-coming 33-year-old actor hold his own against vets like Goodman and Mulligan on screen, but to do the same on the music side, with accomplished artists including Marcus Mumford and the Punch Brothers, is something else entirely -- and nothing short of exceptional.
As the show began to wrap up, "Inside Llewyn Davis" had already left its mark on New York City. Clearly, that was a sentiment that worked both ways -- without the city and its legendary folk scene, there would have been no movie or concert. It's all cyclical, not unlike folk songs themselves, played through the years by countless musicians, reinterpreted and reconfigured for new generations of listeners. Or, to quote a line that Isaac's Llewyn says after performing one of his songs early in the film: "If it was never new and it never gets old, then it's a folk song."
Alex Suskind is Moviefone's Features Editor. You can reach him on Twitter.
EARLIER: What's the Most Important Song in 'The Wizard of Oz'?