Musical multi-hyphenate T Bone Burnett is a whirlwind of associative thinking and snatches of wisdom. The Texas-born legend has produced the likes of Roy Orbison and Elton John, toured with Bob Dylan in his Rolling Thunder Revue, and frequently works as a score composer, music supervisor and a record label owner. Earlier this year Jeff Bridges honored Burnett in Nashville by calling him “the Willy Wonka of music, constantly creating new flavors for our ears.” If he had a conversation with sound guru Walter Murch, the velocity could produce a big bang.
Burnett’s the executive music producer on the new Coen brothers movie Inside Llewyn Davis, his fourth collaboration with the Oscar-winning duo after The Big Lebowski, The Ladykillers and the super-selling O Brother, Where Art Thou?. “Everyone puts everything on a table and it becomes ‘ours’,” Burnett says of their collaboration. “Things shift and it just has to be whatever the best answer is and it doesn’t really matter who came up with it. You never feel there’s some controlling presence, they are just always the most certain participants — letting it happen — but they have a certainty that means you don’t have to worry about it.”
Chronicling the offbeat odyssey of a struggling folk singer before his scene hit mass appeal, Llewyn has the kind of soundtrack that makes its music producer the film’s second star. So, in a twist on our Five Favorite Films feature, we asked T Bone Burnett about his favorite movie soundtracks…
The Mission (Ennio Morricone, 1986)
Yeah, that’s a good one.
I’m not being funny. That song, “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” I can barely make it through that song, it’s so beautiful. And “On the Street Where You Live,” the soundtrack just has great song after great song and it’s beautiful melodies and literate songwriting, just one great song after another.
I liked My Fair Lady, though I thought Dr. Strangelove was a much more adventurous, subversive film that year, and should have won the Academy Award — listen to me talking like a Hollywood insider — but I loved that musical. So it beat Dr. Strangelove which is one of the most important films ever to me.
Strangelove was one of the reasons I called the Coen Brothers. I became a fan after their first movie [Blood Simple], because it had so much of my home about it — I’m from Texas and I knew people who’d worked on it. And it had a sound and style of storytelling I thought was great.
Raising Arizona (Carter Burwell, 1987)
And their next movie, Raising Arizona, came out and had this insane soundtrack. That crazy Pete Seeger “Ode to Joy” on the banjo with whistling and yodeling and it was totally mad. And every joke on it landed for me — one of the things about the Coens is there’s history in every shot. Some people say “Where do you want to put the camera?” but in the morning, they’ll draw up signs and give the actors with the lines and below a drawing from the storyboard of the camera angle they’ll be in when they have those lines. They have it all cut in their head when they do it. This is why they have control. Economy is the essence of art you know. I was looking at the detail in Raising Arizona and I thought, “We must have seen all the same films growing up because it was just speaking to me.” And it got to the part where John Goodman and his cohort come out of the ground and go into the service station to comb their hair and in the mirror you can see in spray paint OPE POE backward in the mirror. And I thought, “Really interesting this is how detailed they are.” They would take a quote from Dr. Strangelove like “Purity of essence, peace on earth” and put it backwards on a mirror and spray paint it on the wall somewhere backwards in Arizona.
Inside Llewyn Davis opens in New York and Los Angeles this week and goes wide on December 20. Stay tuned for our interviews with the cast.