Aspect Ratio

Film and folk

Examining the history of American music

Joel and Ethan Coen’s forthcoming feature Inside Llewyn Davis is set within the folk-music renaissance that bloomed in gloomy Greenwich Village nightspots in the early ’60s. “It was never new and it never gets old: it’s a folk song,” explains the film’s titular troubadour (Oscar Isaac), a singer/guitarist solo act, based loosely on Dave Van Ronk, who embodies the crepuscular, world-weary, lonesome wanderer persona of American folk, the polar opposite of the winsome, cheerful, harmony-driven ditties popularized by the likes of Peter, Paul & Mary. Accordingly, it is the moodier material from the folk canon, songs of farewell, regret and oblivion, that dominates Llewyn Davis and, by extension, Another Day, Another Time, a new film documenting a concert performed last September at New York’s Town Hall of music inspired by Llewyn Davis. It’s now available on Netflix.

The music in Llewyn Davis and Another Day was overseen by roots music impresario T Bone Burnett, who had previously performed similar duties for the Coens’ Depression era period comedy O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), which helped to spearhead a commercial resurgence of interest in American folk—the soundtrack album has sold more than seven-million copies. The music in Llewyn Davis is, if anything, more fully integrated into the narrative than was that of O Brother, and thus it follows that the songs performed on Another Day feel unusually unified in theme and tone, despite the varied styles of the assembled performers, among them Isaac, Jack White, Joan Baez, Gillian Welch, Patti Smith and Marcus Mumford, who helped Burnett with the production. In keeping with the intimate nature of the music and the reverby allure of the all-acoustic arrangements, there are no pick-ups or pedals in sight in Another Day. Everything is performed before a minimal number of microphones, forcing the musicians to listen carefully and huddle close as though sharing the warmth of a small campfire.

Smith’s understated rendition of “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You” and the stirring “Midnight Special” performed by Welch, David Rawlings and Willie Watson—none of them strangers to spooky Americana—are obvious highlights. But other standouts came from performers I was unfamiliar with, some of whom were less concerned with adhering to strictly traditional interpretations. Boston quartet Lake Street Dive, fronted by singer Rachael Price, inject a pleasing dose of soul into the hootenanny, while Carolina Chocolate Drop Rhiannon Giddens uses her seriously impressive vocal chops to imbue her number with an operatic precision that some would consider anathema to the sort of warble normally associated with folk’s supposed backwoods authenticity. I’m grateful that Burnett and Mumford left space for such blasphemous interpretations. This is, of course, exactly how folk songs become and remain folk songs, by which I mean timeless tunes, not by staying hermetically sealed in the cadences and colours of their time of origin, but by allowing themselves to be bent, shaken, dismantled and renewed by each new generation of musicians who take them on.

In the realm of fiction films whose narratives draw mightily upon the history of American music, few titles have proven as resonant or complex as Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975), whose teeming ensemble of 24 central characters are each in some way connected to the cultural tapestry of the titular Tennessee capital, especially its music. The film’s many musical numbers, all of them performed live, all of them written by the cast—which includes Lily Tomlin, Keith Carradine, Shelley Duvall, Jeff Goldblum, Geraldine Chaplin and the late, great Karen Black—cover a broad spectrum of Americana, from Haven Hamilton’s patriotic anthems of endurance, like the fussily arranged “200 Years” or the Opry-sized chick-a-boom of “Keep A-Goin,” to the ecstatic hymns of the all-black gospel choir led by the white Linnea Reese, to the fragile and willowy Barbara Jean’s tender, vocally dexterous, autobiographical “My Idaho Home,” to sexily self-loathing, womanizing singer-songwriter Tom Frank’s dryly confessional “I’m Easy,” which constitutes the film’s brilliantly conceived, emotionally brutal centre-point.

Nashville is as durable as it is in part because it refuses to pander either to those seeking facile, cynical satire or those wanting a reverent, humourless homage to country and western—the genre most closely associated with Nashville, particularly in its rhinestone-Nudie-suit-big-hair incarnation. By the same token, the film’s political elements are hardly simplistic either, from the homespun electioneering of Replacement Party candidate Hal Phillip Walker, a precursor to Jimmy Carter, to scenes of at times uneasy racial integration or loosening gender roles, to the enigmatic assassination attempt that draws the film to its eerie close without ever offering an explanation as to the assassin’s motivation or even confirming whether or not his target was killed.

Generous but never ingratiating, funny but never cheap, this is a sprawling, wildly ambitious film that to my eyes and ears only gets better with age. It’s taken me this long to realize just how revolutionary Nashville truly was, not only in its insistence on maintaining a boggling panorama of protagonists, but in its use of multi-track sound recording and mixing to capture and pluck out snippets of dialogue from multiple characters within a single roaming shot. Altman’s was not merely an enormous technical accomplishment but also an unprecedented way of altering the very nature of cinematic storytelling. The film is now available in an excellent dual format collector’s set from Criterion.

Chief among Criterion’s extras is a new 70-minute making-of documentary featuring Tomlin, Carradine, Ronee Blakley, Michel Murphy, screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury and assistant director Alan Rudolph. Tewkesbury’s testimony regarding the development of the script is a fascinating chronicle of research and imagination—and it ends with Altman ultimately telling everyone to then toss out of the script, as was his wont. Which is not to say that Tewkesbury’s work was done in vain. Altman simply had a gambler’s sensibility and an exceptional instinct for facilitating happy accidents and drawing quality material from his collaborators. Besides writing their own songs, the cast also wrote some of their own dialogue and came up with some of their own actions based on whatever was happening on the day. Hearing about Nashville’s genesis makes you miss Altman, who died in 2006, that much more. It also makes you wish more directors understood the power of running a film set like its one massive, quietly controlled party. V

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