The Hollywood Foreign Press Association calls it an original song, but “Please Mr. Kennedy” is part of a long folk tradition of borrowing and rewriting
The Golden Globes are known for stretching the boundaries of what’s considered comedy in their nominations, but Thursday’s nominations also blur the lines of what is considered an original song.
In the Best Original Song – Motion Picture category, one of the nominees is the song “Please Mr. Kennedy,” an early ‘60s-style novelty number from “Inside Llewyn Davis” that provides one of the highlights of the film.
In the scene, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is roped into performing on a recording session with fellow folksingers played by Justin Timberlake and Adam Driver.
Also read: Golden Globe Nominations: The Complete List
The number Timberlake’s character has come up with is a rollicking tune sung by an astronaut who doesn’t want to go into space:
The Globe nomination is only one of several music awards that “Llewyn Davis” and its musical director T Bone Burnett have been considered for in the last week – but Burnett won’t be in line to add any Oscars to that haul, because “Please Mr. Kennedy” wouldn't qualify for that race.
One clue as to why can be found in the songwriting credits listed on the Globe nomination: Ed Rush, George Cromarty, T Bone Burnett, Justin Timberlake, Joel Coen and Ethan Coen.
Rush and the late Cromarty were a folk duo called the Goldcoast Singers, who in 1961 recorded a song called “Please Mr. Kennedy” that was about not wanting to go to Vietnam. The “Llewyn Davis” version takes the Goldcoast Singers version, changes the subject matter and the lyrics, and fiddles with the arrangement and the melody – but it’s clearly based on the earlier song.
“It’s heavily rewritten,” Ethan Coen told TheWrap in a recent interview. “That’s the only song that’s not a song from the period, but a rewritten song.”
“Although that’s a very dangerous territory to get into with folk music,” said Joel Coen. “What’s the old expression?”
“Change a word, take a third?” said Ethan.
“Yeah,” said Joel. “You don't have to change much in music publishing. But that's also what the essence of folk music is, things morphing into other things.”
In fact, the Rush-Cromarty “Please Mr. Kennedy” had already done a fair bit of morphing: Although the verses are different, it is very similar to a song released on the Motown label by a white singer named Mickey Woods, and co-written by Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr.
See photos: Golden Globes 2013: The Nominees (Photos)
The Goldcoast Singers’ version, which puts the song in a folk context and adds vocal flourishes reminiscent of what Driver’s character does in the movie, is not available on YouTube. (You can find it on iTunes.) But the Woods version is:
And that song is essentially a rewrite of an earlier novelty song called “(Please) Mr. Custer,” in which a soldier pleads with his commander not to make him go to Little Big Horn.
All of which is to say that while it’s close enough for the Golden Globes, and part of a time-honored tradition in folk music, “Please Mr. Kennedy” is not an original song in the eyes of the Academy’s Music Branch.
But it’s not a stretch to call it a highlight of the movie – and a song that might not be so bad it’s good, but it is certainly so bad-good it’s entertaining.
“It is supposed to be a bad song according to Llewyn Davis,” Burnett said at the Q&A following a recent Wrap screening of the film. “The thing is, if you put music in a movie, it has to be good, even if it’s [supposed to be] bad.
“If a character says that the music is bad, then the audience will go along with it and be happy to be in on the joke. But if you just play bad music, the movie’s just bad for the amount of time that that music’s playing.”