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
Running time 1 hour, 45 minutes
To describe Joel and Ethan Coen’s grim comedy “A Serious Man” as a labor of love would be no small exaggeration.