“Inside Llewyn Davis”
Starring Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman and Justin Timberlake. Directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen.
Rated R for language including some sexual references. Check listings for theaters. 1 hour, 46 minutes.
Justin Timberlake, so often shuttling between movies and music, for once didn’t have to choose.
In the Coen brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis” Timberlake plays a supporting role as a cheery, sweater-wearing 1960s folk musician. But he also collaborated with producer T Bone Burnett on the movie’s memorable period songs and helped shape the film’s most unforgettable and comic tune, “Please Mr. Kennedy.”
“It’s the first time that I’ve gotten to kind of do a lot of things that I love to do at the same time,” Timberlake said in a recent interview by phone from the road, where he’s on tour. “It will always be a milestone for me to get to write, sing, act and bring it all together.”
For the multitasking Timberlake (Burnett calls him “a quadruple threat”), the film was a rare chance to combine his talents: a Coen playground staked out between worlds Timberlake usually navigates separately. Some fans and media seem to want him to pick a side: musician or actor.
“I don’t even know what I am, man,” he chuckles.
The folk revival music of “Inside Llewyn Davis” is quite a distance from Timberlake’s “Suit and Tie” or “My Love,” but Burnett doesn’t think much of genre divisions.
“He’s from Memphis, says Burnett. “He’s an R&B singer, basically. But he’s got a beautiful voice and he’s got incredible tone and he can sing anything he wants to. A song is a song.”
“Inside Llewyn Davis” is about a struggling and bitter folk musician (the title character, played by Oscar Isaac) in 1961 Greenwich Village, the cusp of Bob Dylan’s arrival. Timberlake plays a friend of his with a rosier outlook and less concerns with selling-out. The movie is filled with full performances of songs, all but one of which were recorded live.
Work on the film began with the music: “We found the characters through the type of music they did,” says Timberlake.
Timberlake went to Burnett’s Los Angeles home to work on “Please Mr. Kennedy.” The song, whose chorus goes “Please Mr. Kennedy, don’t shoot me into outer-space,” is the comedic high point of the film, and one of the strangest songs that will ever be credited to Timberlake (along with Burnett and the Coens). The premise, Burnett says, was astronaut John Glenn having second thoughts.
The song is roughly based on “Please Mr. Kennedy,” a 1962 novelty song by the Goldcoast Singers that pleads to the president not to be shipped off to Vietnam. It went through several other different iterations through the 60s. (Because the song is based on previously recorded material, it’s ineligible for an Academy Award.)
“There was a novelty song and then there was a parody of the novelty song,” says Burnett. “Then there was another parody of the novelty song. Now we’ve done a rewrite on a take-off of a parody of a novelty song.”
With Timberlake and Isaac (a proficient musician, himself) on guitar, they’re joined by Adam Driver (“Girls”) who, in a cowboy hat, adds some of the more ridiculous harmonies. (“Adam Driver is a deeply courageous actor,” says Burnett.)
Molded by Burnett, Timberlake, the Coen brothers, Isaac and Driver, the song may very well be one of the most absurd collections of talent for a recording. It’s also a hit. Moviegoers and critics have raved about “Please Mr. Kennedy” since the film first debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in May.
But the unusual group of musicians, actors and filmmakers was perfectly suited to Timberlake.
“We just all jammed together for a couple weeks,” says Timberlake. “So you felt like this counter-culture collective.”
“I don’t like rules of ‘well, this is what you do, or this is the picture frame you’re supposed to live in,’” he says. “You just never know what might come out of trying everything.”
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