John Sciulli/Getty Images for CBS FilmsProducer T Bone Burnett

Oscar Isaac, T Bone Burnett talk about ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’

In the late 1990s, Guatemalan-born, Miami-raised rocker Oscar Isaac was fronting a popular ska-punk band called The Blinking Underdogs when fortune first smiled on him.

His band won a chance to record songs with Eddie Kramer, who engineered the Beatles and Led Zeppelin, says the singer-guitarist, who plays the title role in “Inside Llewyn Davis,” Joel and Ethan Coen’s new snapshot of the Greenwich Village folk scene, circa 1961.

But Isaac was unsure of his songwriting voice at the time. And once he was accepted into Juilliard’s theater program, he left his group behind and quietly tracked songs at home.

“I’ve got tons of stuff recorded, but it was always just for myself,” he says during a press stop in San Francisco with “Llewyn” executive music producer T Bone Burnett.

It was the right decision. He landed key parts in “Drive,” “10 Years,” Ridley Scott’s “Robin Hood,” even Madonna’s “W.E.” “So the irony is that this first big shot I got as an actor was completely dependent on my ability as a musician, as well,” he sighs.

The career choices of Llewyn Davis — whom the Coens loosely based on late folksinger Dave Van Ronk — aren’t as wise.

He’s a misanthropic, couch-surfing also-ran who repeatedly misses opportunities. His partner in a popular duo has committed suicide. He cuts a one-off novelty song (with an earnest Justin Timberlake), but waives the royalties.

When he finally meets the genre’s reigning impresario, Bud Grossman (a surgically precise F. Murray Abraham), it’s the last glimmer of a shooting star. His only friend is a slippery orange feline named Ulysses (played by five cats) who doubles as a metaphor for elusive stardom.

Naturally, a young Bob Dylan is crucial to the script.

Burnett — who toured with Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue and won four Grammys for his soundtrack work on the Coens’ “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” — understands Davis’ angst, as well as Isaac’s Underdogs farewell.

“The real reason to do something is because you have something to say, because records aren’t selling,” he says. “But if you’ve got something to say, it doesn’t matter who buys it. Which, coincidentally, is the way I’ve always approached everything I’ve ever done.”

But plans have not been set for Burnett — a producer with a mile-long résumé — to be at the helm of a debut disc from Isaac, who sonorously croons “Llewyn” traditionals such as “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” and “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song”).

While Isaac thinks it’s a great idea, Burnett cautions him. “Let’s get fully behind Llewyn first,” he says. “Because you can’t leave Llewyn for awhile!’

IF YOU GO

Inside Llewyn Davis

Starring Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund, Justin Timberlake

Written and directed by Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

Rated R

Running time 1 hour, 45 minutesartsInside Llewyn DavisMoviesOscar IsaacT Bone Burnett

If you find our journalism valuable and relevant, please consider joining our Examiner membership program.
Find out more at www.sfexaminer.com/join/

Just Posted

Union threatens legal action after Police Commission expands use-of-force policy

San Francisco’s police union is pursuing legal action after the Police Commission… Continue reading

City Attorney seeks to recoup ‘illegal profits’ gained by Walter Wong through city contracts

San Francisco will seek to recover “illegal profits” gained by well-known permit… Continue reading

SF Police Commission votes to expand use-of-force policy

Decision to bypass union negotiations could set stage for litigation

Free Muni for Youth program expansion halted by SFMTA budget crisis

Low- and moderate-income kids can still travel for free

Newsom orders multiple counties to shut down bars, indoor restaurants as COVID-19 cases rise

As confirmed cases of COVID-19 rise in California, Gov. Gavin Newsom on… Continue reading

Most Read