Inside Llewyn Davis

January 18, 2014
Oscar Isaac in 'Inside Llewyn Davis', 2013
Oscar Isaac in 'Inside Llewyn Davis', 2013

In The Folk Song Army the satirist Tom Lehrer took aim at the folk revival that swept the United States in the early 1960s. “You have to admire people who sing these songs,” he said. “It takes a certain amount of courage to get up in a coffee-house or a college auditorium and come out in favour of the things that everyone else in the audience is against, like peace and justice and brotherhood.”

With Inside Llewyn Davis the Coen brothers have zeroed in on that same moment, showing us this world through the eyes of a struggling folk singer. Llewyn Davis is trying to make a name for himself in the bars of Greenwich Village where a hip crowd gathers to hear songs of protest, traditional ballads, and all the variations that once made audiences feel as if something meaningful was taking place in popular music.

The character of Llewyn is loosely based on Dave Van Ronk (1936-2002) a fixture in the Greenwich Village scene who never made it to the big time. He auditioned to be in the group that became Peter, Paul and Mary, but was judged “too idiosyncratic and too uncommercial.”

Van Ronk’s fourth album, of 1964, was called Inside Dave Van Ronk, so we know where Llewyn is coming from. Like Van Ronk, he finds it increasingly difficult to fit into an underground music scene that is being transformed into big business. More of an interpreter than a song writer, Van Ronk would perform traditional songs such as ‘Hang Me’ and ‘Green Rocky Road’, which Isaacs also covers in this movie.

Despite these borrowings, this is a fiction not a bio pic. Van Ronk was described as a garrulous hairy man that resembled an unmade bed. Oscar Isaac’s Llewyn has a soulful, melancholy side, but also a penchant for self-destructive behaviour.

The Coens are masters of edgy, black, situational comedy, and this film has scenes that will make viewers tense up in their seats. Like so many Coen characters Llewyn is one of life’s losers who can never make the most of his opportunities. The Gorfeins, a couple of big-hearted academics, give him a bed when he needs it most, but he lets their cat out of the apartment and gets caught up in a long, futile search. One could read the cat episode as a symbol of the career Llewyn is chasing but can’t capture.

His relationship with two folk-singing friends, Jean (Carey Mulligan) and Jim (Justin Timberlake), is equally problematic. Jean accuses him of getting her pregnant, and he has to find money for an abortion. Meanwhile, the couple’s squeaky-clean act is becoming popular, especially following the addition of neat, gormless Troy Nelson (Stark Sands). I’m sure any resemblance to Peter, Paul and Mary, is entirely coincidental.

Llewyn wants to be successful but is prone to those anxieties about ‘selling out’ which reached epidemic proportions in the Village scene. His cyncism smoulders from the start of the film, but as he watches an ever more grotesque procession of folk artistes treading the boards at the Gaslight Café, these feelings become explosive.

Broke and frustrated, Llewyn agrees to share the petrol money on a trip to Chicago, with the gross, voluble Roland Turner, an aging jazz musician (a brief but dominant cameo by John Goodman); and his silent driver, Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund). For Llewyn it’s an opportunity to put his wares before the legendary producer, Bud Grossman, (F. Murray Abraham). Because this is a Coen brothers film the trip doesn’t go as planned. In act, it doesn’t go any way the viewer might have anticipated.

By the end of the movie we are back where we began but a new era is dawning. The brief ascendency of folk music has run its course and the village is playing host to a different kind of performer.

Inside Llewyn Davis is a perfect time capsule – one week of the Greenwich Village music scene captured in impeccable detail. The period is brought to life with the kind of dedication only fans could achieve, if you can imagine fans who delight in debunking any sense of nostalgia. The music, which draws on the expertise of the redoutable T Bone Burnett, is an integral part of the film. Like the audience in the Gaslight Café we sit through entire songs, not simply the fragments. Oscar Isaac is no slouch as a performer, bringing heart and soul to these numbers.

As heroes go, Llewyn inspires pity, but he is not entirely sympathetic. He knows trash when he hears it but soon begins to tire of playing the misunderstood genius. He would sacrifice his hardwon integrity for a share of success, but no-one is offering him the opportunity. He is a misfit but also a kind of Everyman. His constant dilemma is one we can all recognise: “Is it me, or is it the world that’s got it wrong?”

Inside Llewyn Davis
USA/France, rated MA 15+
105 mins
Written & directed by Ethan & Joel Coen; starring Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund, Stark Sands, Adam Driver, Robin Bartlett

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 18th  January, 2014.