At first glance, the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis is not explicitly a feel-good film. The titular antihero – a down-on-his-luck folk musician in 1960s New York – is bitter about his circumstances and most sympathetic when journeying with or searching for his neighbours’ cat. In trademark Coen fashion, however, the film is rich in dark comedy and hidden meaning. A shining example is the moment when a cash-strapped Llewyn (Oscar Isaac on top form) agrees to perform a novelty faux-protest song for an immediate $200 in lieu of royalties. Titled ‘Please Mr. Kennedy’, Llewyn is joined by his mate Jim Berkey (Justin Timberlake, whose screen presence is always welcome) and – most crucial here – folk bass Al Cody (Adam Driver) to bring the song’s unwilling astronaut to life.
Driver’s Al only appears in this scene and the snippet immediately following, but he completely owns the strange studio sequence. It is difficult to describe the dulcet yet comical tones and sounds he produces, but they manage to capture the song’s ridiculousness and the singers’ earnestness equally, resulting in a captivatingly ridiculous moment. Backing up Isaac’s and Timberlake’s wordy vocals with “UH OH” and “Outer… Space!” heightens the absurdity of Llewyn’s situation and elevates the song from cheesy tune to smash hit. It is so odd it works, and flawlessly.
Driver’s star power has grown exponentially in the last five years – while still a mainstay of the indie circuit (see Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson), his turn as the new Star Wars baddie best illustrates his meteoric rise to Hollywood stardom. Possibly best known as Lena Dunham’s atypical and slightly sinister love interest (also named Adam) on HBO’s genre-defining show Girls, he has featured in several notable independent projects – Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, and Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha – before appearing in the Coens’ 2014 folk trio.
While Driver denies that this impressive lineup of directors and projects was “part of his master plan” – insisting he’s just been “very lucky” – his appearance here alongside his other high-profile projects in just a few years is testament to his talent. These qualities are consistently on show in the roles he picks, not least Al Cody. While his singer appears incredibly briefly, he gives the impression that Al is Llewyn’s opposite: a cheerful, generous musician happy with novelty studio work instead of (or alongside) artistic greatness. This subtle characterisation, alongside his outrageous vocals, ensures the performance is not easily forgotten.
Although Driver had already appeared on two series of Girls before Inside Llewyn Davis hit cinemas, he got the call from his agent to audition for the Coens in 2011 – before Lincoln reached cinemas or the HBO drama had aired. According to a 2013 Indiewire interview, the audition – which involved singing an early version of ‘Please Mr. Kennedy’ – was an obvious ‘yes’ for Driver, although he does not consider himself a musician or singer. However, this lack of preconceptions about his musical abilities may have enabled some of the song’s most excellent moments: guttural do-wop noises that “defy easy description” are more delightfully odd than beautiful and exactly the right tonal fit. river states that he does not know what could be “more vulnerable… than singing”; here, he pulls off such an exposed performance with aplomb.
In another 2013 interview with the Huffington Post, Driver and company speak about the experience of filming this song. From their recollections, the process of composing, writing, and orchestrating this song seems to have been highly collaborative, with legendary guitarist T Bone Burnett and Timberlake providing most of the music, and the Coens the words. After several iterations of workshopping and recording, it reached its current corny perfection. The premise of the song is an astronaut begging President Kennedy – a ludicrous notion considering, as Driver states, “usually you would imagine that there would be many stages where people can bail out” – not to “shoot” him into outer space. Driver adds the following on the creative process:
We worked on it, then they kept shaping it. So everyone was naturally collaborating. I wish I could say that I was more involved, because the people that were involved, I felt like it’s probably best if I just… take a back seat to T Bone Burnett and Justin Timberlake and the Coen brothers and Oscar.
Driver’s humility regarding the song’s creation is attractive and commendable; however, he has no reason to be so self-effacing in terms of its performance alchemy. In the film’s version of the 1960s, ‘Please Mr. Kennedy’ goes on to become a smash hit with substantial royalties for Jim and Al (a blackly ironic blow for Llewyn). It is not hard to imagine that this success could have largely come down to the bizarrely catchy bass backing singer. Similarly, Driver pins much credit for the film’s and scene’s success on the legendary directing duo, stating that “to see the Coens […] still have this relentless pursuit to tell the best version possible [of the story] and do all their homework – it’s incredible to be able to have witnessed.”
While die-hard Driver fans have no shortage of his screen time to explore today, his work in Inside Llewyn Davis is an exemplary scene-stealing moment. To see Driver’s musical performance, check out the video below: