Telluride Tribute: The Sound of the Coen Brothers


Joel Coen (center) with Ethan Coen (right) and T-Bone Burnett in Telluride last night. Photo © Pamela Gentile

Most biopic movies suck, Ethan Coen noted last night at the Telluride Film Festival.

He's right, so it should be no surprise that when he and his older brother Joel decided to make a movie about the folk music scene they would choose to tell the story of anyone other than Bob Dylan.

"The success story thing did not appeal to us," Ethan Coen began last night as he talked about the origin of their new film, Inside Llewyn Davis (NYFF51). "It's hard for us to see stories in that."

A folk musician who wasn't Bob Dylan was much more compelling.

"What was interesting to us was doing a movie about the guy who was never going to be Bob Dylan and why not," Ethan Coen explained. So they imagined a character not unlike Dave Van Ronk, an NYC folk singer from Brooklyn who was big in Greenwich Village before Dylan exploded on the scene.

The Coen's Inside Llewyn Davis is situated squarely in that moment when folk music was in a dramatic time of transition. The title character of their new film, played by Oscar Isaac, is a man in a time of transition. Specifically, 1961. Would Llewyn Davis achieve wider attention for his music or give up his career and join the Merchant Marine?

"It's about this edge of success and failure," Oscar Isaac told me during our conversation about the film back in Cannes.

So, referencing Van Ronk made more sense, Ethan Coen noted, "[He was] just a more interesting starting point for thinking about the story."

Toasted at the Telluride Film Festival last night, the Coen Brothers shared the stage with their frequent music collaborator T-Bone Burnett. Barry Sonnenfeld, the Coens' cinematographer in the early days, surprised the honorees and hung silver Telluride medals around their necks.

"With this medal I'm feeling very Helen Hayes-y," Ethan Coen joked.

At one point, conversation moderator Todd McCarthy asked the Coens and Burnett to name a favorite movie musical.

Joel Coen named Carol Reed's The Third Man and Burnett singled out John Carney's Once. But Ethan Coen paused.

"You never see a good biopic," Coen offered. "They're always bad." That said, he plugged Michael Apted's Coal Miner's Daughter, starring Sissy Spacek as country music star Loretta Lynn.

"That had good music and [it was] a good movie," he said.

Music wasn't big for the Coens when they were growing up. The brothers said that they spent more of their time focused on movies. Namely, watching films on TV and then trying to remake them on Super 8 the next day. They recalled shooting their own version of Cornel Wilde's The Naked Prey and even tried to adapt Otto Preminger's Advise & Consent. But, they also had some fun making shorts set to the music of acoustic guitarist Leo Kottke.

The Coens didn't grow up with a lot of records in their home as kids. They recalled that their parents owned just a couple of albums—The Mikado, the soundtrack from Fiddler On the Roof, and Alan Sherman's My Son The Nut.

"They listened to so little music that when I went to college I took the entire stereo system and they didn't notice," noted Joel Coen.

They seemed comfortable looking back on stage last night, but the brothers are an unlikely duo to accept a festival honor. They rarely do this sort of thing. And even though last night was intended to celebrate the use of music in their films, they didn't initially seem all that convinced that that was something worth celebrating.

"Music is important to movies to a greater degree than most people in the audience recognize," offered Ethan Coen, but he cautioned, "I don't even know that we're at all special in that regard."

By the end of the night, after talking about and watching clips from The Big Lebowski, The Ladykillers and O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the audience disagreed with them.

"One would be hard pressed to find many film directors whose way with music equals that of the Coen Brothers," Hollywood Reporter film critic Todd McCarthy noted yesterday at the tribute, "Whether used as ironic or comic counterpoint to a scene, to layer the action with an absurdist dimension, make a joke or genuinely augment suspense, music helps define any number of their films."

In addition to their collaborations T-Bone Burnett, they've also worked closely with the frequent composer of their film's scores, Carter Burwell. Next up, the Coen's reluctantly admitted that they are exploring another movie that may have music at the center.

"You always hesitate to mention these things when you are in the middle of them because sometimes they just go in a drawer and never surface again and then people ask 'what ever happened to that thing' for the next 20 years," Joel Coen cautioned, adding sheepishly about a new project, "We are writing something right now where the main character is an opera singer."

The insight caused some awkward rumbling from the audience and then an extended pause. Joel Coen broke the silence and wrapped up the night well.

"Ann Richards, the former governor of Texas, once asked me what we were doing next and I said, 'We're making a movie about a barber who wants to be a dry cleaner,'" Joel Coen recalled, "and she looked at me for a long beat and said, 'I'm trying real hard to get excited about that.'"

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