Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Justin Timberlake, Oscar Isaac, and Adam Driver -- "Please, Mr. Kennedy" (2013)

I'm six foot two
So perhaps you'll
Tell me how to fit into a
Five-foot capsule

Hey -- I'm six foot two, too!  What a coinkidink!  (I used to be six foot three, but I was so much younger then . . . I'm older than that now.)

NOTE:  I know there are a lot of grammar nerds who read 2 or 3 lines.  FYI, "six foot two" is correct -- if you don't believe me, click here.  If you still don't believe me, consider this:  "Five foot two, eyes of blue/But oh! what those five foot could do!"  I rest my case.

ANOTHER NOTE:  I had quite a tussle with the ol' spell-checker over "coinkidink."  Did you know it is the classical Latin pronunciation for coincidence?  

Inside Llewyn Davis, which was written and directed by Ethan and Joel Coen, is a movie about a folk singer who is having a tough time making a name for himself in the Greenwich Village folk-music scene of 1961.

The movie is currently in very limited release in the U.S.  (It goes wide later this week.)  So it's almost certain that you haven't seen it yet.  

But 2 or 3 lines has seen it.  2 or 3 lines saw it at a press screening in Washington, DC, last week although 2 or 3 lines did not attend that press screening as a member of the press.  

That's about as much as I'm going to say about that -- anything more about that evening will be provided strictly on a need-to-know basis.  (2 or 3 lines works in mysterious ways, its wonders to perform.)  The last time I looked, you mos' definitely did NOT have a need to know.

Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) and friend
I liked Inside Llewyn Davis a lot.  Most of the time, my opinion of a movie is highest when I'm in the moment -- after a few hours or a few days of reflecting on it, my enthusiasm may wane a bit.  The opposite is happening here -- the more I think about Inside Llewyn Davis, the more I think I like it.  

But that doesn't mean I would expect everyone to like it.  I think many people who will see it will walk out and say, "Meh."

One of the highlights of the movie is its soundtrack was produced by T-Bone Burnett.  He also produced the soundtrack for the Coens' O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which includes the traditional American folk song, "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow."

The Inside Llewyn Davis soundtrack contains a number of traditional folk songs.  (Davis offers this definition of a folk song: "If it was never new and never gets old, it's a folk song.")

But it also contains "Please, Mr. Kennedy," a brilliant and hilarious original song about a reluctant astronaut who pleads with President Kennedy not to send him into outer space.  

Here's the scene from the movie where "Please, Mr. Kennedy" is performed by Oscar Isaac (who plays the title character), Justin Timberlake (who plays a folk singer who is a friend of Llewyn Davis), and Adam Driver (who plays a third folk singer).

Click here to read an interview of Burnett, Isaac, and Driver about the writing and recording of the song.

I said that "Please, Mr. Kennedy" was an original song.  But strictly speaking, it's not an original song.

The "Please, Mr. Kennedy" songwriting credit lists not only T-Bone Burnett, Justin Timberlake, and Ethan and Joel Coen, but also Ed Rush and George Cromarty.

That's because Rush and Cromarty, who recorded as the Goldcoast Singers, wrote a song called "Please, Mr. Kennedy" (which released on a 1962 album titled Here They Are! The Goldcoast Singers) that is essentially the same song as the Inside Llewyn Davis "Please, Mr. Kennedy," but with new lyrics.  Click here to listen to that song.

But that's not the whole story.  

In 1961, Motown released a single by Mickey Woods that is also called "Please, Mr. Kennedy."  It's a pretty big leap from that song to the Goldcoast Singers' song, but it is also about a guy asking President Kennedy not to draft him -- not because he is opposed to the war, but because he wants to marry his best girl first.  (The singer would also be satisfied if his best friend -- who he suspects of having designs on his girl -- were to be drafted at the same time.)

And you can go back a little further still.  The Mickey Woods' "Please, Mr. Kennedy" may have been inspired by Larry Verne's "Mr. Custer," which was a #1 hit single in 1960.  

"Mr. Custer" is sung by a private in the 7th Cavalry who begs General Custer to leave him behind if he insists on fighting the Battle of Little Bighorn:

There's a redskin a-waitin' out there
Just a-fixin' to take my hair
A coward I've been called 
'Cause I don't wanna wind up dead or bald

The Inside Llewyn Davis "Please, Mr. Kennedy" has been nominated for the "Best Original Song" Golden Globe.  But it won't be nominated for an Academy Award -- or it won't be unless the Academy committee that nominates songs for the "Best Original Song" Oscar changes their rules.  That's because the Academy's rules limit eligibility for that award to a song that "consists of words and music, both of which are original and written specifically for the motion picture."  

Forrest Wickman of Slate is not happy about this state of affairs because he believes that the Inside Llewyn Davis song is an adaptation that is "transformative" -- which happens to be a term of art that is fraught with significance for copyright lawyers (and which won't be explained further here because you're not paying me $670 an hour) -- and that represents a "form of genius" equal (or superior) to that of creating a song from scratch (if such a thing is really possible).

The Coens, Burnett, Timberlake, and Oscar Isaac put in hours and hours overhauling the song entirely: In addition to adding the countdown at the beginning and Driver’s ad libs, Burnett himself wrote "10 or 15 verses."  The Coens then "edited and refined and changed" these verses.  Together they kicked around and recorded multiple versions over the course of weeks, before the performers finally shaped the final version under Burnett and the Coens’ direction.  It was a perfect example of the kind of "creative interaction between the filmmaker(s) and the composer(s)" that the Academy explicitly values.

But the Academy’s rules, as they exist today, don’t reward this kind of creativity. In fact, it’s dismissal of this kind of creativity that prevented the Academy from recognizing classics like "Gangsta's Paradise" and "Fight the Power" from
Dangerous Minds and Do The Right Thing because they used samples. 
I couldn't agree more.  

Once again, here's "Please, Mr. Kennedy":

Click below to buy the song from Amazon:

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