How 'Please Mr. Kennedy' was born and why it's not eligible for Oscar consideration
LOS ANGELES — With nominations from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and the Broadcast Film Critics Association in the span of a week, not to mention being a stand-out track on the year's prestige "musical," produced by recent Academy Award winner T Bone Burnett with pop superstar Justin Timberlake on the mic, you would think "Please Mr. Kennedy" from the Coen brothers' "Inside Llewyn Davis" was on a collision course with Oscar. But due to stricter AMPAS rules, the tune will not be on the list of songs eligible to compete in the Best Original Song category at this year's Academy Awards.
That's no skin off Burnett's back.
"When we started this film, it wasn't like we said, 'Let's write one to make sure we have something for the Academy,'" the slick-haired icon says outside a Brentwood bakery one afternoon. "It's not something that comes into your mind. The conversation is so pure, I guess. There are strict rules but that's good. There should be strict rules. You don't have to win an award for everything you do."
The idea for the song started with consideration of Tom Lehrer, "the great American song satirist of the last century," Burnett recalls. Lehrer produced a song in 1965 called "Wernher von Braun" which was a satire of the eponymous rocket scientist about his cavalier attitude toward the consequences of his work in Nazi Germany. Burnett and the Coens wanted something in the film with that sort of levity and high energy.
"I think Ethan came up with 'Please Mr. Kennedy Don't Send Me Off to Vietnam,' which was funny enough in itself," Burnett recalls. "That's an attempt to write a Tom Lehrer song or something. But it was based on a completely insane novelty song called 'Mr. Custer' that was part of the Brill Building world. Funny song."
"Mr. Custer" was a 1960 Larry Verne ditty written by Al DeLory about a soldier's plea to General George Armstrong Custer in the Battle of Little Big Horn not to send him off into battle. It was parodied one year later by Jim Nesbitt with "Please Mr. Kennedy," about blue collar America reaching out to the President for a helping hand. Then there was Mickey Woods' 1962 Motown track, also called "Please Mr. Kennedy" about a Vietnam draftee pleading with the President not to ship him away until his girlfriend marries him (because he's convinced she'll run off with another man while he's away).
All of it fed Burnett and the Coens' imaginations. So taking an amalgam of the space race commentary of "Wernher von Braun" and the comedic image of reluctant soldiers and frontiersmen, they came up with "Please Mr. Kennedy… Don't You Shoot Me Into Outer Space."
"The guy doesn't want to go," Burnett says with a laugh. "He's just got a bad feeling about this! Then I just wrote a couple of pages of lyrics, like Ogden Nash couplets. Most of it ended up in the song."
Nevertheless, with the refrain of "I don't want to go" (a throwback to the Verne and Woods tracks), among other pastiche considerations, nixed it from consideration by the Academy. Knowing the originality that did go into the track, however, that might seem unjust in some way. But Burnett is apologetic.