Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Inside Llewyn Davis


As Llewyn Davis puts it, “If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song.” I don’t know about the getting old part—if I never hear “500 Miles” again I’d never miss it—but you get the idea. There was a time in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s when “folk music” was inexplicably popular. Yes, I know folk is still around, but the term covers a wider territory, both traditional songs and new stuff by singer/songwriters. Back then, it was almost all traditional. Groups like the Kingston Trio, the New Christy Minstrels, the Chad Mitchell Trio, and the Weavers sang old songs, and people gathered in coffee houses to listen, and then bought their records. It didn’t last long. Soon other singers showed up, writing their own stuff and still calling it folk. In fact, in the last scene of this movie set in 1961, a new boy named Bob Dylan is following Llewyn, singing his own composition of “Farewell,” symbolic of the torch being passed, even if reluctantly, to the new generation. (It’s actually Dylan singing, in an unreleased studio version, not the one we all know.)

Predictably (at least it didn’t surprise me) there has been some carping from the folk music community, including Dave Van Ronk’s ex-wife, that the Coens didn’t portray the New York folk music scene accurately. She says it wasn’t all that friendly. Others have pointed out that Dave Van Ronk’s like wasn’t anything like that, or that he bore no resemblance to Llewyn Davis.

Well, big surprise.

First, the Coens have never shown much interest in showing something “accurately.” The opening screen in Fargo, for instance, says THIS IS A TRUE STORY. It’s not. That’s a lie. Second, though they purchased the rights to Van Ronk’s book, they have been open about the fact that they only pulled a few incidents here and there. This is not a biopic. The only thing in the movie that bears any resemblance to Van Ronk is the music.

But thirdly, and most importantly, this is not a movie about folk music! There’s a lot of folk music in it, and it’s performed quite well, with many songs presented in their entirety. It’s a movie about an artist failing in the only thing that matters to him. It could have been set in Seattle with grunge rock, or in 1800 in Germany with one of Beethoven’s contemporaries that you’ve never heard of because he never made it.

It’s a very sad story. It covers one week in Llewyn’s life, and at the end of it he decides the only real option open to him if he’s not to spend the rest of his life mooching off friends, an unwelcome guest on their couches, is to go back to the merchant marine, the only other thing he can do. Along the way he takes a long and strange trip to Chicago, where he turns down a chance to be in a group that would have been called Peter, Llewyn, and Mary. He is part of a group that records something called “Please Mr. Kennedy,” about an astronaut who’s afraid to get in the rocket. It is obviously inspired by that terrible hit “Please Mr. Custer,” and by José Jiménez. It is so very, very awful that it has “novelty blockbuster” written all over it. He signs away his royalty rights for some ready money.

Llewyn can be a bit of an asshole when he’s really frustrated, and he spends the whole movie in a frustrated funk. So the film is not a whole lot of giggles. There’s little of the Coen’s ironic humor here, though there are some funny scenes. I think they feel for this character, as they did in A Serious Man. I feel for him, too. It’s the commonest story in show business, you know. Not the story we’re used to in a film, where somebody comes from nowhere and, after a lot of struggles, makes it to the top. Most people, even very talented people, never get past the first base camp on the way up Everest, much less the summit. Llewyn has tried for years. He has made an album with his partner, who later jumped off the George Washington Bridge. He has made his own album, “Inside Llewyn Davis” (one clear parallel to Van Ronk, who had an album called “Inside Dave Van Ronk,” with a similar cover). His agent had boxes and boxes of them until he threw out all but one, which Llewyn doesn’t know what to do with. Like I said, sad, sad.

Can’t finish this without a word about the cat. Cats, actually, as there are supposedly two very similar orange tabby cats in the story. There were a lot more than that on the shoot. The Coens were either gluttons for punishment by having a cat be in so many scenes, or they were ignorant of cat behavior. By the end of the shoot they totally hated cats. But not nearly as much as Oscar Isaac hated them. He hated them before the shoot, and was the poor schmuck who had to tote them around for half the movie. The thing about cats is, they are virtually untrainable. They just don’t care what you want. The only solution is to have a lot of identical cats, and use different cats according to what they already want to do. The Coens said it was a lot more fun working with the trained buzzard in True Grit.