This is intended to be more than just a review of “Inside Llewyn Davis”. The extent to which the New York 1960s folk music scene figures in and really defines this film made it seem natural to expand any discussion of its merits into a consideration of its source material. So, to get the basics out of the way first, it’s a great film. Do go to see it, particularly if you like the Coen Brothers and the music of Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie et al.
The story follows Lleywn Davis (Loowin to the American accent), an unfortunate but determined musician living around Greenwich Village in the early 1960s. He is complex, partly misanthropic but also attempting at our sympathy. Oscar Isaac manages the role with ease. Given that it is a film about music, his obvious talent as a singer is a boon. Admittedly, the soundtrack itself is not stellar, and this is a point which deserves some contemplation. However, the trademark evocative moodiness of the directors suggests quite believably how a folk singer would have scraped by before Dylan really exploded into America.
In some senses, it bears a lot of similarities to their other musical film, “O Brother Where Art Thou”. The music which George Clooney’s Ulysses Everett McGill performs serves as a key narrative force, reuniting him with his wife; like this film, the soundtrack is not just an accompaniment to the story, it is a vital part of the fictional world. Unlike in “Inside Llewyn Davis”, in “O Brother” the bluegrass and folk music connects people. It is also successful, unlike Llewyn himself, who fails to secure a record deal.
Obviously it should not be inferred from this that the Coen Brothers view early 1960s folk as a divisive and depressing influence on contemporary culture. The film is simply less triumphant in tone. Part of this clearly comes from the biography of Dave Van Ronk, the real-world inspiration for Llewyn Davis. A similarly unsuccessful folk musician (though one hopes his life was not quite so bleak) his most famous album is “Inside Dave Van Ronk”. Clearly, the directors wished to highlight the parallel.
The film is more than a loosely disguised biopic though. To start, there are plenty of invented people and circumstances, most of which make a more entertaining, Coen brothers-style film. John Goodman puts in a sterling, if typical, performance as a belligerent jazz musician. But perhaps more importantly, especially in considering the music of the film, the personalities of Llewyn Davis and Dave Van Ronk seem to be quite different. The former is moody, and can be barbed and pretentious. The latter was an avuncular man, the accommodating “musical mayor of MacDougall street” according to contemporary critic Robert Shelton.
These differences are born out in their respective eponymous albums. For instance, there is a clear sense of humour to Van Ronk’s song “Talking Cancer Blues”. It is a witty number about the tobacco industry and the merits of pot as an alternative. One could not imagine Lleywn Davis performing a similar piece of music. Indeed, given that most of the songs in the film are folk standards (making the soundtrack basically an anthology of the period) it seems that musical director T-Bone Burnett consciously constructed Llewyn’s music as a non-fictional, real life alternative to Van Ronk’s.
It’s not a copy, an homage nor even a parody. In the world of the film, Llewyn has built his fame on the song “Wings”, which he performed with a partner who then committed suicide. In actuality, that piece of music is “Dink’s Song”, a folk standard covered by Van Ronk and Dylan. Personally, I feel Dylan’s version is the clear winner (though such competiveness isn’t really in the spirit of 1960s folk communalism). Is this surprising, or even intentional on behalf of the Coen brothers? Do they want us, the audience, to consciously compare the music of the three and conclude that actually, Llewyn doesn’t deserve to become successful, even if perhaps Van Ronk was unjustly obscure? It doesn’t seem too implausible.
Ultimately and tragically, music emphasises his distance from others. This is mundane tragedy, a dramatic exaggeration of what is lived experience for the vast majority of people who attempt to become popular musicians. Perhaps most strikingly, the audience are not made to regret Llewyn’s failure; that the film can achieve this whilst also being entertaining and touching is a serious triumph.