Music in Film: Inside Llewyn Davis and 12 Years a Slave

Ivan's latest column explores what music can tell us about a character through two new UK soundtrack releases

Music is a powerful thing. It can be used to express authority or portray identity. The very act of playing music defines us, as both performers or listeners. That relationship we have with it makes for two extremely powerful soundtracks currently accompanying movies in UK cinemas: Inside Llewyn Davis and 12 Years a Slave.

Inside Llewyn Davis

“Play me something from Inside Llewyn Davis,” manager Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) challenges Oscar Isaac’s lead in the middle of the Coen brothers’ film. Llewyn responds with The Death of Queen Jane, an old ballad from the 1500s that recounts the tale of King Henry losing his wife, Jane Seymour, to gain a son. It’s not a happy song.

It’s also a clear statement from Llewyn: he’s not afraid of sadness. In fact, the first time we see him on screen, he performs Hang Me, Oh Hang Me, another traditional, hauntingly sad, number.

Oscar Isaac is perfectly morose as the withering soloist, whose partner, Mike Timlin, recently killed himself. He plucks sorrow out of the air as fluidly as he does his guitar strings. The fact that he can play in real life also means that we get live performances from our main character; Llewyn Davis fills the screen with long, untampered takes and the accompanying album with a scratchy, analogue realism.

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Teaming up again with the legendary T Bone Burnett, the Coens obviously know and love the genre, throwing in tracks from such musicians as The Down Hill Strugglers, Nancy Blake and Dave Van Ronk. Van Ronk is, in many ways, a template for Llewyn. On the scene before Bob Dylan arrived, he found himself overshadowed by the rising star. And so we get Dave’s original Green, Green Rocky Road on the CD as well as Oscar Isaac’s cover. But Llewyn is very much his own creation – the music in the film makes that clear. After all, every track isn’t only a song chosen by the people behind the camera, but also a song chosen by Llewyn; he defines himself as an artist through what he performs.

Dink’s Song (or Fare Thee Well) is the headline track. “If I had wings like Noah’s dove,” goes the verse, “I’d fly up the river to the one I love.” It’s another song about love and loss. Fittingly, we hear it twice: once at the start, sung by Oscar Isaac and Marcus Mumford (as the duo LLewyn and Mike) and then again, at the end, by Llewyn alone. The difference between the bookends is striking; a perfect demonstration of how Inside Llewyn Davis uses music to tell its story not just accompany it. In between them, Llewyn starts to perform Fare There Well at a dinner party, only for someone else to join in. He stops, shocked at their uninvited appropriation of Mike’s part.

You can’t blame him. Together, Llewyn and Mike’s vocals are a rich pair, the musical double act hitting the high notes of the chorus with a warm harmony. Oscar’s live, solo rendition is the opposite: instead of the professional, clean studio recording, LLewyn delivers Dink’s Song with a loose, raw edge. He changes the gender in the song, singing it as a man rather than a woman (the Dink of the title), knocks the key up a fourth and changes the time from a clean 4/4 to a swaying 12/8.

It’s a fascinating contrast and it has several effects: it’s a nod to Van Ronk, who, like Llewyn, recorded the song in triple time in 1961; it also slows it down, leaving Llewyn’s strained vocals exposed on those higher notes for a whole second longer. But again, these aren’t just calls by Burnett or the Coens to highlight Llewyn’s grief – as a musician reinventing a track he’s performed many times, Llewyn makes these decisions himself. That new beat to the song gives it a driving energy; a statement of confidence as much as sadness, a screw-you from a artist determined to embrace the change (or, perhaps more accurately, lack thereof) in his life and keep singing the same old song how he wants. “If it’s never new and it never gets old, it’s a folk song,” he deadpans to the audience at the Gaslight Cafe.

Other contributions from Carey Mulligan (who sings as beautifully as she did in Steve McQueen’s Shame) and Justin Timberlake (who can pretty much do anything and be brilliant) are just as much a treat for the ears. Faux-novelty pop song Please Mr. Kennedy, featuring Adam Driver on guest shouting, is the only original number in the soundtrack – and it’s one of the happiest 120 seconds you’ll spend in a cinema this year. But make no mistake: this is Llewyn’s gig.

A previously unreleased Bob Dylan recording of Farewell (worth the CD price alone) caps off the album with a reminder of why Davis didn’t become famous. But Llewyn wouldn’t have it any other way – and frankly, neither would we. Because all of that failure and melancholy makes for a cracking folk song. And that’s what the Coen brothers’ movie is: a folk song. It’s an exploration of an artist’s identity and their reliance upon music to express it. It’s something from inside Llewyn Davis. And it’s breathtaking.

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12 Years a Slave

Have you ever stood in a group of people singing and tried not to sing along? It’s not easy. By not singing, you mark yourself as different from the others. Conversely, the act of joining in shows you’re the same.

Similarity is a big part of the 12 Years a Slave soundtrack. Hans Zimmer’s score is essentially made up of a single theme, that of Solomon Northup – and it already bears a striking resemblance to Hans’ other work, using the same four chords as Inception‘s time (the seemingly-everywhere chord progression of Sunshine’s Adagio in D Minor by John Murphy, which is, in turn, much like Zimmer’s own The Thin Red Line. It’s perhaps pertinent to note here that Shame‘s score by Harry Escott, while effective, was also an echo of the latter.)

It may seem apt, then, that the score for 12 Years a Slave hasn’t been released: Zimmer’s instrumental work is limited to one track on the album, called Solomon; once you’ve heard those three and a half minutes, it implies, you’ve heard the whole score. The rest of the CD is made up of songs “inspired by” the movie, with offerings from Alabama Shakes (the soulful Driva Man) and Chris Cornell and Joy Williams (the solemn Misery Chain) and, most effective of all, John Legend’s rousing version of an old spiritual, Roll Jordan Roll – in which he accompanies himself by a nifty bit of multi-tracking. More on that later.

Zimmer’s work, instead, can be found on an awards promo release by Fox Searchlight, with 30 odd minutes available to stream on their FYC site. The full array of orchestral tunes reveals how repetitive it is. Solomon Northup introduces the four-chord motif on flute, before moving to strings, with evocative low cellos carrying the tune. That theme is re-arranged to suit different contexts – Eliza Flashback strips down the riff to a simple piano part, as Solomon’s fellow captor thinks about her kids, and Letter Writing gives the melody to a humming vocalist, while pizzicato strings stab in the background – but it remains essentially the same.

The tracks that are different are mostly sound effects for ambience. Plantation Life Pt A contains some quite woodland noises, Escape Sequence is nothing more than a wood block metronome and River Rafting Claps is exactly what the name suggests. The only other interesting entry is Boat Trip to New Orleans, a haywire mesh of percussion and horrible synth. Even through that cacophony, though, Solomon’s theme gently emerges on a sole violin.

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Zimmer’s score is, on its own, not all that impressive. But that persistent single melody is key to 12 Years a Slave‘s power. Chiwetel Ejiofor says little once Solomon’s in captivity – he cannot show his intelligence or the fact that he can read – so the music has to convey his emotions for him. Speaking to Steve McQueen at the UK premiere of the film, he told me: “What I was thinking about was silent movie stars – Valentino, Buster Keaton – because when you’re on your own and you can’t talk to people about who you are, it’s all about how you can translate that to an audience.”

His theme’s repetitive move from minor to major, ending on an unresolved fifth, plays out Solomon’s journey from tragedy to hope over and over again for two hours. With no sign of escape, Solomon’s resolve and determination keep going like Zimmer’s music – with no other characters given a theme at all, 12 Years a Slave‘s soundtrack is a looping, never-ending reiteration of Solomon’s identity.

Here’s where 12 Years a Slave gets interesting: that ability of music to establish a person’s position within a world. Early on, Paul Dano’s foul plantation boss makes the slaves clap in unison. While they obey, he chants “Run N***er Run” at them: “Run, run the patty roller will get you / Run n***er run well you better get away”. It’s a song that slaves used to sing to each other as a caution for those planning to make a dash for it – now used by their master to remind them of their place. The sequence is cut together with hammering and working, a cruel montage of intimidation, before it finally overlaps with Benedict Cumberbatch’s slaveowner Ford, who recites from the Bible, reinforcing that chain of oppression.

Run N***er Run is not included in either of Fox Searchlight’s soundtrack releases. The other spiritual in the film, though, appears twice on the commercial album: Roll Jordan Roll. John Legend’s rendition is fantastic, but the one with the real weight comes straight from the screen.

Halfway through, the slaves sing and clap together (this time voluntarily) in a scene that shows McQueen’s understanding of the importance of music – not just the emotional impact of Zimmer’s cyclical dirge but its social function within the story itself. Solomon stands stoically in the choir as the others repeat the chorus, determined to retain his status a free man. But after a minute of being surrounded by the tune, he joins in, a powerful tenor that belts straight from the heart and out of a cracked face.

After two hours of hearing his own individual theme play through thick and thin, Solomon’s decision to assimilate, to submit to his enforced role as a slave, is heartbreaking to hear; a fleeting moment where his voice, his identity, can be heard out loud – but for the first time, lost.

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