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That tenderness spills out in the movie's exquisite soundtrack collection of 12 mostly traditional songs, interpreted by a group of fine musicians (Isaac foremost among them, singing and fingerpicking, along with Justin Timberlake, Marcus Mumford, the Punch Brothers and a cut each from Dylan and Van Ronk). For ballast, some of the tunes echo the styles of other folksingers of the day, including a Tom Paxton--ish, Army-based fellow balladeer (Stark Sands) singing Paxton's "The Last Thing on My Mind"; a quartet passing as Irish lads in Aran sweaters, singing "The Auld Triangle," just as the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem did in woollies of their own; and a trio (Timberlake, Sands and Carey Mulligan) whose rendition of "Five Hundred Miles" is right out of a Peter, Paul & Mary concert. (Never mind that the PP&M concept was just being created in 1961 by the legendary music impresario Albert Grossman, who also managed Dylan. In a sharp throwaway moment with a basis in fact, a fictional influential manager, played by F. Murray Abraham, considers Llewyn for a place in the trio, just as Dave Van Ronk was briefly in the running.)
Burnett, a fan of the Coens since he admired the way the pair fit Seeger's banjo-picking interpretation of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" into the soundtrack of Raising Arizona 26 years ago, has a theory about what the music means. "The movie is about today," he says. "That period of shift in 1961 is similar to our shifting into a new century. Llewyn Davis is part of an old guard, and something new is on the way." Then again, Burnett is equally eager to talk about the American hunger to "keep our cultural identity intact" in the face of globalism--the yearning for roots that made the O Brother soundtrack a success. (Perhaps in his own yearning for roots, Ethan Coen reports that his preferred playlist is full of "old dead black guys.")
But enough talk. What Inside Llewyn Davis has to say is in the ear of the beholder. Behold the haunting new tune of troubadours Joel and Ethan Coen.