Timberlake cools it
Oscar Isaac, Justin Timberlake and Adam Driver in a scene from "Inside Llewyn Davis." Picture: AP

Wearing a boring brown jumper and shirt and sporting a manicured beard and hairstyle, Justin Timberlake is hilarious as Jim, a dorky 1960s folk musician and singer in the Coen brothers' latest movie, Inside Llewyn Davis.

It's not quite the look we expect from the six-time Grammy Award winner whose 20/20 album was the top seller of last year.

"I talked with Ethan about a look for Jim," Timberlake recalls of working closely with the younger Coen brother. "We found a picture of Paul Clayton who sang traditional folk songs. I enjoy looking ridiculous in everyday life, so for me it was a lot of fun. I actually liked that beard."

The folk singers of the era were not ridiculous. They were just different to how pop stars such as Timberlake behave on stage today. Their style is easily parodied.

"We studied 60s folk performers such as Peter, Paul and Mary and they didn't move a lot," Timberlake says. "A live performance then was more reverent and still than now."

Inside Llewyn Davis marks T Bone Burnett's fourth collaboration with the Coens. He co-produced the film's music with Marcus Mumford, who performs on several tracks. Mumford is married to British actress Carey Mulligan, who co-stars as the love interest of Llewyn (Oscar Isaac). She plays a folk singer.

"Marcus and T Bone worked very closely on a lot of the music and myself and Oscar were there for a portion of the time," Timberlake explains.

"When we got together the first thing that Joel and Ethan set up, which was brilliant, was to put us all in a live room and a recording studio where we worked out all the arrangements for the songs.

"Then we recorded them as the characters. It was really interesting because how we were singing as the characters became really informative to who the characters were in the movie."

Besides Hedy West's folk classic Five Hundred Miles, which Timberlake sings with Mulligan and Stark Sands, his most indelible song is the comic tune, Please Mr Kennedy, which he performs with the surprisingly talented Isaac on guitar and with Adam Driver (Girls) providing some ridiculous harmonies.

"With Please Mr Kennedy I sat with T Bone in his house in Los Angeles and wrote a song similar to how you'd write a Saturday Night Live sketch," Timberlake says, citing the US comedy show on which he regularly appears and hosts.

"Joel and Ethan basically had the lines, and we came up with melodies that could turn it into an upbeat folk song."

The song, whose chorus goes "Please Mr Kennedy, don't shoot me into outer space," was about astronaut John Glenn having second thoughts and is roughly based on a 1962 novelty song by the Goldcoast Singers.

In the film Llewyn is horrified when the ditty, which is more like a pop song, becomes a hit, because it's the kind of music he detests. He considers it selling out.

Set in Greenwich Village in 1961, the film depicts a time just before Bob Dylan came along to revolutionise the way we viewed folk music, indeed to politicise it. This was a more naive era and Llewyn was himself naive and never about to make it in the music business.

How does Timberlake view folk music? "I'd seen the Scorsese documentary on Bob Dylan where many folk singers including Dave Van Ronk (on whom the Coens loosely based Llewyn) were interviewed and I found that to be extremely informative of the folk music culture of that time," he says.

"Growing up outside Memphis, my first musical lesson was my grandfather putting an old Gibson in my hands and teaching me finger picking, so it actually was helpful one day. For me this music felt warm and fuzzy. I was learning country songs but there's such a similarity between the storytelling of country music and the storytelling of folk music. I learnt how one genre can lead to another.

"I was mostly listening to the radio when I was young and was more interested in the songs. When I felt I had an opinion I started to like a certain style a bit more. I love music in general and I watch movies that way too. It's never been about the star performer. I never liked one style of music or one artist over another."

The West Australian

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