“I wouldn’t mind the hangin’, but the layin’ in the grave’s so long…”
In a New York state of mind.
The Coen brothers’ latest offering Inside Llewyn Davis is inspired by events in The Mayor of MacDougal Street, memoir of Dave Van Ronk, a lynchpin in the folk scene of 1960s Greenwich Village, NYC. On one level it is a week in the life of eponymous (anti-)hero Llewyn Davis, a struggling folk singer played by Oscar Isaac, and on another level it is a detailed, atmospheric snapshot of a collective phenomenon on the cusp of entering popular American consciousness.
The film starts with a song, a beating and a stray cat, and this really sets the formula for the next two hours. Llewyn goes from hardship to hardship (many of his own creation) in his endeavours to make it as a folk musician during what is only a week, but feels like a year. He is a compelling, if not completely likeable, protagonist who tackles loss, estrangement and lack of fulfilment with a rueful obstinacy, repeatedly making and burning bridges in the process. However, it is his unflinching honesty and flagging energies in the face of his youth slowly trickling away which endear us to him. Meanwhile, friends and basket-passing contemporaries wander in and out of the narrative, in some cases assisting him and in others berating him. Like Llewyn Davis who is not exactly Dave Van Ronk, many characters are amalgamations of performers of the time rather than specific counterparts. The folk-couple Jim and Jean, portrayed convincingly by Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan, equally evoke Jim Glover and Jean Ray as much as Peter Yarrow and Mary Travers of Peter, Paul & Mary. Meanwhile, background characters Troy Nelson, a green performer living out of Fort Dix but already tipped over Llewyn for glory, and Al Cody, a capable but struggling musician like Llewyn, bear resemblances to Tom Paxton and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott respectively.
Like the Coens’ previous pairing with soundtrack producer T-Bone Burnett on O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which housed a compelling cross-section of Depression-era folk songs and spirituals, Inside Llewyn Davis serves up an insightful and well-executed crop of songs that were doing the rounds of the coffee shops at the time. Some will be familiar (a new arrangement of ‘Dink’s Song’, entitled ‘Fare Thee Well’ and Justin Timberlake and Carrie Mulligan’s wistful take on ‘500 Miles’) and some will be revelations such as Oscar Isaac’s stark rendition of ‘The Shoals of Herring’. Particularly entertaining is the Columbia recording session for absurd pop-protest song ‘Please, Mr. Kennedy’, which is written and performed by the amusingly naive Jim and captures the essence of a time when people still believed that a song could change the world. Throughout the film the songs are delivered with care and are weaved naturally into the story in a way that doesn’t feel conceited in the slightest. Ultimately, it is the songs that survive and which keep the characters going. As Llewyn Davis aptly states ‘If it was never new and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song’, the songs still live over centuries and it is the nature of folk music that it lives on through rediscovery and reinterpretation. Van Ronk’s own career arc can be summed up by Llewyn Davis’s audition with Chicago producer Bud Grossman (Dylan manager Albert Grossman’s surrogate), who listens patiently to Davis’s aching rendition of ‘The Death of Queen Jane’ before passing the succinct verdict: “I don’t see an awful lot of money here”. While Van Ronk garnered a considerable cult-legend status during his lifetime, with which he was content, his uncompromising brand of blues, folk and spirituals was generally considered too idiosyncratic and uncommercial for widespread release and so never gained the success of contemporaries Joan Baez or Bob Dylan. However, his influence on his cohorts cannot be understated and perhaps through the Coens’ reinterpretation as Llewyn Davis, Dave Van Ronk and his songs might live again in this generation.
The film ends almost exactly the way it starts, with aforementioned song, beating and stray cat observed with a new perspective, and suggests an endless cycle of struggle as Llewyn endeavours to find success (or even just a bed for the night) in joints which range from the respected (The Gaslight Café, Gerde’s Folk City) to the nameless and miserable. It accurately portrays the harsh insularity of the Greenwich Village folk scene during the early 60s, and Llewyn increasingly finds his purist views hard to reconcile with his desire for success. However, as Llewyn exits the Gaslight at the film’s end there is a teasing glimpse of the back of a stranger’s familiarly bequiffed head as he starts his own nasally version of ‘Dink’s Song’. Llewyn’s attention is momentarily captivated by the performer before exiting and seems to acknowledge the turning point when a generation of Americans would awaken to the quiet rumble coming from Greenwich Village.
Inside Llewyn Davis is in cinemas now.