Telluride: The Coen Bros. and T Bone Burnett celebrated for telling the stories of American music
TELLURIDE, Colo. - Given the Coen brothers' catalog of great American films, they would have been perfectly suited to a tribute unto themselves at this year's 40th annual Telluride Film Festival. But when you consider Telluride's connection to music via the annual Bluegrass music festival held in June, the Coens' collaboration with T Bone Burnett over the years and particularly how that collaboration has reached a peak with this year's "Inside Llewyn Davis," honoring them together made way too much sense.
Last night's tribute unfortunately faced a scheduling nightmare as it was programmed against the sneak previews of "12 Years a Slave" and "Prisoners," but the turn-out was still solid as former Coen cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld presented the brothers with the Silver Medallion. The Chuck Jones Cinema was all the more packed this morning with film lovers who missed last night's ceremony, eager to toast the trio. Those filing into the theater were met with the musical stylings of The Americans and the traditional picking quartet also offered up a two-song intro on stage to kick off the event.
Clips were shown representing the Coens' collaborations with Burnett over the years, including rock from 1998's "The Big Lebowski," bluegrass from 2000's "O Brother, Where Art Thou?," gospel from 2004's "The Ladykillers" and, of course, folk from "Inside Llewyn Davis." Variety film critic and moderator for the morning, Scott Foundas, started with the obvious question: What were the formative musical experiences for these three?
In the case of Burnett, he wanted to know about Cole Porter from a very early age after digging into countless 78s in his parents' house. "I spent a lot of time down there in that dream world," he said. "There were these songs that were so evocative…all of these universes that were created by just these three men and songs. It was really a pretty amazing thing."
Joel Coen mentioned Pete Seeger but also, being land-locked in Minnesota throughout his childhood, said he found something incredibly romantic about sea shanties. And when it came to his brother, "Big Bill Broonzy blew my little kid brain," Ethan said. "I'm still getting over that."
From there talk shifted to how the filmmaker siblings have used music in their films over the years. It's interesting how Burnett came to be involved with them. After seeing "Raising Arizona" he decided "I've either got to talk to these people or get them out of my head," he said. It was the only time he had ever cold-called someone. He was quite taken by how they used music in the film, particularly Pete Seeger's "Ode to Joy."
With "Lebowski," each character "seemed to have their own musical genre," Ethan said. The film is obviously inspired by the work of golden age musical director Busby Berkeley, and indeed, Joel mentioned that he was very fond of the director's work, from "Dames" to "Gold Diggers of 1935."
As for "O Brother, Where Art Thou?," Burnett's influence was greatly noticed, all the way to four Grammys. The success of that film's American folk/bluegrass soundtrack inspired the "Down from the Mountain" concert benefit and tour that was a raging success. "Me and Joel were totally surprised [by that success]," Ethan said. "T Bone is the only one in the world who was not."
Burnett noted that similar plans are in store for the "Inside Llewyn Davis" soundtrack contributors following the "Another Day, Another Time" benefit scheduled for next month in New York, proceeds of which will go to something very dear to his heart: sound preservation. One of the wonderful things of late, he said, is that great 21st century artists are interested in going back and recording classic tunes from the early part of the last century. But the truly sad thing about that, he said, is that all of the recordings sound bad. "Help is on the way for that," he teased, before noting that he's heavily involved in services for sound preservation much like Martin Scorsese's involvement with film preservation.