How 'Please Mr. Kennedy' was born and why it's not eligible for Oscar consideration
"I really love and respect the Academy's categories," he says. "It needs to be protected because it's a very specific art. You can't start calling it just anything, any music at all. There are questions about originality and I understand. It's a much more complex kind of world we're living in now, so I understand people questioning the categories. But that's an interesting subject in this age of sampling and post-modernism."
And indeed, the song came together under the very spirit celebrated by the film. "There was an original song called 'Mr. Custer,' which was a big hit," Burnett reviews. "And then there was a parody of 'Mr. Custer' called 'Please Mr. Kennedy.' And then there was another parody of 'Mr. Custer,' which may have been a parody of 'Please Mr. Kennedy.' So this is a take-off on a parody of a satire; it's well on down the road. But that's folk. That's what it is."
With the song pretty much written, it was time to apply music. And that's where Timberlake's contribution became invaluable. The pop star and Burnett went out to Norm's Rare Guitars in the San Fernando Valley to pick up an instrument suitable for Timberlake's character in the film. As soon as they purchased it, the singer was eager to write the track.
"As soon as we were in the office he just started writing it," Burnett recalls. "He had his guitar. There was no reason to wait another second, and he just wrote that groove and that vibe. He's the one who sent it into this Coasters vibe, because, you know, folk music didn't swing. It was never sex music. It was always very straight, church music, maybe. Not out of the whorehouse, really. And Justin was able to take that little song to the whorehouse, and that helped!"
All of the hilarious stuff coming out of Adam Driver's mouth during the recording of the song in the film? That's all him and Ethan. Ethan in particular kept coming up with funny noises and sounds to spice up the track.
"They were jamming on that stuff," Burnett says. "Adam's fearless. That guy, he's gonna be around for a long time. We were auditioning people — I hadn't seen 'Girls' yet. I hadn't seen him at all. I knew he was in a play off Broadway. But there were two or three people who sang that part really great, and he came in and he didn't sing at all, really. I mean he did, but you could tell he had never sung. But he didn't give a fuck and he just came in and sang anyway. It was like, 'Oh, him,' immediately.
"Maybe it's that thing of being a Marine and just walking into fire or something," he continues, commenting on Driver's veteran status. "You know, Artaud said that the actor screams through the flames as he burns at the stake. And that's him right there."
With all the elements in place, and "Inside Llewyn Davis" star Oscar Isaac in the fold for the back-up and the "puh puhs," Burnett and company's "Please Mr. Kennedy" came into being. You can understand why the pastiche disqualifies it, but it would be nice if there could still be a category where adaptation work like this is recognized.
"Marvin Hamlisch won for Best Adapted Score for 'The Sting,'" Burnett points out. "And they still have that category. There's just no field anymore. But what is this? Is this is a song score? I don't need to define it. And by the way, I've gotten plenty of recognition."
The list of eligible contenders for this year's Best Original Song race will be released by the Academy later today.
Have a listen to "Please Mr. Kennedy" for yourself in the video clip embedded at the top of this post.
"Inside Llewn Davis" is currently playing in limited release. It expands wider this Friday.