You have to hand it to the Coens. They are intelligent and highly-skilled filmmakers who know how to engage diverse audience groups. They also like to ‘play’ in a serious way, creating controversies and teasing their fans. The most interesting comment I’ve read about Inside Llewyn Davis is that the title could fit on an album cover and that the individual episodes might represent a collection of introspective songs about the artist’s unhappy lot. That seems a good call to me.
Llewyn is an angry man who isn’t making much money from applying his talent in as authentic a manner as possible. He has no home and moves from the floor or couch at friends to the occasional bed. His sister is about to sell his parents’ house. He is primed to insult anyone who offers the hand of friendship – but he is topped in the angry stakes by Jean, one of his former lovers. This is a Coens’ movie though and thankfully he isn’t ‘redeemed’. Many of those who don’t like the film suggest that it has no story or rather no ‘meaning’. I take the story to be about the folk singer who fails to find success because of a combination of bad luck (fate?), the unfortunate ability to be in the wrong place at the wrong time – just missing being in the right place at the right time – and the inability to compromise just enough to gain acceptance without squandering his talent. For me, the turning point of the narrative is Llewyn’s ‘audition’ for Albert Grossman (or his fictionalised counterpart). This is his big chance to impress the main promoter on the folk scene and he sings a song that many commentators have seen as ‘miserabilist’, a ‘real downer’ etc. In fact it is a beautiful rendition of an old English ballad (arranged in the version that Oscar Isaacs sings by the Irish guitarist Dáithí Sproule). It is contrasted with the smoother, more ‘poppy’ and conventional songs sung by the ‘Jim and Jean’ characters (played by Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan) and some other performers.
The Grossman who turned down Llewyn Davis would go on to promote Bob Dylan (who appears as a character towards the end of the film) – and the much more polished Peter, Paul and Mary – but who in 1961 doesn’t see what might become a commercial possibility.
I think the film is well written, beautifully photographed and, as might be expected from the Coens, the soundtrack is wonderfully arranged/scored/constructed by T-Bone Burnett. Oscar Isaac’s performance of the songs is very good and worth the price of the admission ticket on its own. But here is where the Coen’s get playful and tease. The ‘community’ of singers associated with the Gaslight Café and Greenwich Village generally in 1961 is based on and ‘around’ the historical figures of Dave Van Ronk and several other well-known names such as the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem and Tom Paxton. I’m sure I read/heard that the Coens said that they didn’t know that Ewan MacColl only wrote ‘Shoals of Herring’ in 1960 – but the narrative implies that Llewyn had sung the song to his father many years before. Did they really not know? There are other anachronisms as well, including a poster for The Incredible Journey (1963) (part of the entertaining narrative of a Greenwich Village cat). The barely disguised impersonations and sly jokes (Llewyn comments on the sweaters worn by the Clancy Brothers performers) and the anachronisms provide ample material for fans either of the music itself or of the Coens’ films to discuss at length.
Inside Llewyn Davis has prompted me to explore Dave Van Ronk’s music. He’s someone I’ve always vaguely known about but never properly listened to and now perhaps I will. I guess it helps (to get funding) if the characters in a kind of faux biopic like this are relatively young and beautiful. I wonder how important Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan (whose husband Marcus Mumford has a leading role in the music performed in the film) are to the success of the film for younger audiences? It occurs to me that a biopic of a similarly ‘difficult’ but older and less photogenic character like Ewan MacColl would offer personal dramas, songs at least as good and a similar clash of ideas about where the music should be going – but would add some radical politics as well.
The official website for Inside Llewyn Davis carries a useful background piece on the folk scene in New York in 1960-2.
Inside Llewyn Davis is clearly a film with American cultural content and it is an ‘American’ film, but it’s worth noting that it has been made in association with StudioCanal – a link going back to the Coens’ early work with Working Title/Universal/Vivendi? – and the UK company Anton Capital Entertainment which currently supplies 30% of StudioCanal’s funding. So Inside Llewyn Davis is technically a US/France/UK film.