Musical multi-hyphenate T Bone Burnett is a man of many talents. He has toured with Bob Dylan, produced albums for the likes of Roy Orbison, Elvis Costello, Alison Krauss and Elton John, enjoyed a successful recording career and won 13 Grammys and an Oscar®.
But it is for his film work that he is perhaps best known. Burnett is the man behind the soundtracks of films such as The Hunger Games and country music drama Crazy Heart, and is the collaborator of choice for the Coen Brothers, having worked on four of the writer-director duo's films (O Brother Where Art Thou?, The Big Lebowski, The Ladykillers, and their latest release Inside Llewyn Davis).
"In short, if your film needs music that summons up the American heartland with pedal steel guitar and wounded voices, Burnett's the man you go to" (Guardian)
Burnett sees himself as a curator of traditional American music - his transcendent, authentic choice of songs have arguably made most of the films he has worked on. It is with great pleasure and a keen ear, then, that we have composed a season of Filmic T Bone Burnett Sunday Brunches in February dedicated to the great man's magical music talents.
The first film in the season is Burnett's first film with the Coens: O Brother Where Art Thou? The film's swampy soundtrack, which served as a vehicle for the story in its own right, brought home Album of the Year at the 2001 Grammys and went on to sell over 8 million copies.
The latest Coen/Burnett collaboration Inside Llewyn Davis is also enjoying a popular run here at Watershed, and we'll be screening it until at least Thu 6 Feb. It tells the story of the folk scene in New York's Greenwich Village at the start of the 1960s, the dark ages before Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary, before the hit records were released and the big money arrived.
It follows a struggling folk singer (played by Oscar Isaac) who believes 'if it's never new and it never gets old, it's a folk song'. When the Coens first approached T Bone Burnett to work on the film, their opening gambit was "real songs, made up people' - it's the story of a nearly great artist. So Burnett spent months with Isaac creating a history for his character, a life, a backstory, filling in everything - from the way he held his guitar to the music he listened to at home.
Burnett called his work on Inside Llewyn Davis "the best job in the world", and it shows - his passion and knowledge shines through, and his reverence for American music, its importance:
"Historically, music is the way we taught everything. We taught history through music, we taught mathematics through music, we taught language through music, poetry, and this music is the music that grew up out of the ground, it's the music of the people, the poor people. In particular, in the United States."
The T Bone Sunday Brunches are part of Filmic, a joint collaboration between Watershed and our friends at St George's Bristol bringing you a foot-tapping mix of film, music, talks and special events throughout March, April and May.
On Fri 25 April we'll be hot-footing it up the road to St George's for more Coen Brothers/Burnett brilliance at O Bro: A Musical Celebration of the Coen Bros, where a wealth of performers will pay musical tribute to our favourite director duo.
As a little teaser Phil Johnson, Senior Programme Producer at St George's, has shared his thoughts on all things Coen:
It was the Coen Brothers' debut, 'Blood Simple', seen at Watershed (and didn't we call it 'The Watershed' then?) on its first run. After the opening sequence plays out, a black bartender in a redneck tavern puts a record on the jukebox and we hear 'It's The Same Old Song' by The Four Tops, a solid-gold Tamla Motown classic. Teasingly, the same song ('It's The Same Old Song', get it?) also closes the movie, when in a coda after the long drawn-out bloody climax, the bar's jukebox comes on again, playing that same old song as the end-credits roll.
Sixties pop-soul hits would not go on to become Joel and Ethan Coen's musical strong suit (though the film also features a reggae version of 'Louie Louie' by Toots & The Maytals), but it was abundantly clear that here were film-makers with a finely-tuned and suitably ironic ear for a killer tune, the nerdy knowledge of exactly where to put it, and massive respect for the the powers of popular memory. Check the same supreme use of oddball cult pop songs with Dylan's 'The Man In Me' in 'The Big Lebowski', cut to a ten pin bowling titles-montage, obviously, and the edgy psychedelia of Jefferson Airplane's 'Somebody to Love' from the more recent 'A Serious Man'.
In 'Raising Arizona', which I saw at the old Frogmore Street Odeon - which became Mothercare, I think - almost all of the the music came from the original score by Carter Burwell. Burwell had also worked on 'Blood Simple' and went on to become perhaps the Coens' most favoured collaborator, on 'Fargo' and much else. But what one remembers most about 'Raising Arizona', apart from the jokes ('Caution: Driver Naked'), the babies, the infernal biker, well pretty much everything really, is the amazing title song, you know, the one with the yodelling called 'Way Out There'.
Of course, the most famous use of music by the Coen's has to be the old timey blues, gospel and Carter Family-style country in 'O Brother Where Art Thou', which I still haven't seen in the cinema. Hopefully, I'll remedy that shameful omission at (the) Watershed in their run-up to our own Filmic concert at St George's on Friday April 25, when we present 'O Bro: A Musical Celebration of the Coen Brothers', with a multi-act bill assembled by alt-folk specialists The Local likely to cover a number of the tunes.
Inside Llewyn Davis is set in the Greenwich Village singer-songwriter folk music scene of the early 1960s and is based, at least partly, on the memoirs of Dave Van Ronk, a notable influence on the young Bob Dylan. As such, perhaps it should be seen after a preparatory viewing of Martin Scorsese's monumental Dylan-doc, 'No Direction Home', where a number of survivors of that period are interviewed. Here's a revealing interview with Dylan talking about that period that provides further essential swotting-material. He's also very, well, Coens-like.
Filmic T Bone Burnett Brunches screen every Sunday at noon throughout February, Inside Llewyn Davis will screen until at least Thu 6 Feb, and more Filmic events will be announced very soon - watch this space for details.