Inside Llewyn Davis a Tepid Look at Folk Revival

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
CBS Films/Studio Canal, 105 minutes, R (for language and a naked backside)
* * ½

We expect Joel and Ethan Coen brothers to deliver quirky films whose logic often drifts toward the surreal. Had that been the case with Inside Llewyn Davis, it would have been a much more interesting film. Alas, this film invokes adjectives we don’t expect to attach to Coen brother films: tepid, restrained, and ordinary.

The film is set in 1961 and follows a single week in the life of a struggling folksinger, Llewyn Davis–played with hangdog torpor by Oscar Isaac. In 1961 folk music was hot and about to get hotter still. A movement known as the Folk Revival (roughly 1946 to 1965) was a rushing stream, though some thought it running out of steam. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, The Weavers ruled the pop charts and, in 1958, The Kingston Trio had a #1 hit with “Hang Down Your Head, Tom Dooley,” a catchy and sanitized remake of a 19th century southern murder ballad. Purists, like the character Llewyn Davis, felt that the commercialization of folk music would be its ruination, and faithfully churned out ‘authentic’ folk songs–spare ballads, songs of indefinite origin, and public domain material. They were right that antiseptic folk was doomed, but the future instead belonged to Joan Baez and a guy she took on tour with her: Bob Dylan. The Coens wisely located their tale in 1961, because that was the year Dylan hit New York City and the rest, as they say, is history.

1961 was a seminal time in American culture as it was also the time in which Beats lost their hipness and Hippies were as yet inchoate, but in their depiction of the period the Coens deaked right when they should have veered left. How does one show these shifts? Does one highlight the context, or focus on a single character? Either could work, but if the focus is personal, that character has to interesting, if not lovable. Llewyn Davis is based loosely on the life of Dave Van Ronk. The Coens understood that Davis/Van Ronk was too mercurial, stubborn, and rarefied to have broad public appeal. I met Van Ronk a few times and found him among the few unpleasant people I’ve ever encountered on the folk circuit. He wasn’t, however, boring. Alas, Llewyn Davis is worse than boring. Imagine a petulant, irresponsible, self-absorbed 14-year-old with no impulse control in the body of a 30s-something and you’ve got Davis.  

This is a problem. We’re supposed to sympathize with Davis and see him as a sort of Everyman for the poor schlemiels that didn’t become Baez or Dylan. We follow Davis from one crash pad sofa to the next, follow him on a desperate road trip to Chicago (where he hopes to ingratiate himself to impresario Bud Grossman), witness his unraveling dreams, and see him alienate family and friends. And we simply don’t care, because Davis is a world-class jerk who crafts his own misery. We suspect he doesn’t even see the music he so fiercely protects as anything more than a meal ticket.

There are a few good things about the film. The Coens made a picture that looks really good. Thought it’s shot in color, the use of cool filters, smoky ambience, and noir-like shadows make us feel like we’ve been transported back in time. In fact, the club interiors are often more interesting than the characters inhabiting them. John Goodman chews scenery and delivers a few juicy lines as Roland Turner, a heroin-addled jazz pianist whose ego is even bigger than Davis’. If you’re a student of folk music history, it’s also amusing to try to decode the film. Who was Turner, and whose the baby-faced, sweet-voiced folk singer on leave from the U.S Army supposed to be?

Most of whatyou see on the screen references real people, places, and events. I’ve provided a ‘key’ to the film below, but it’s filled with spoilers, so you might want to read these after you’ve seen the movie. Should you? It’s your call. Llewyn Davis is a bit like the Kingston Trio–neither good nor horrible. Of course, we expect more–much more–from the Coens than run-of-the-mill filmmaking. I could work myself into a snit over making such a fascinating period dull, but that would expend more passion than the Coens mustered. --Rob Weir

Key for Music History Junkies:

            --Jim and Jean (Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake) were based on real duo, Jim and Jean Glover, who made a small splash. They were sometime patrons of Phil Ochs, not Dave Van Ronk.

            --The Gaslight Café was a real Greenwich Village folk club, though the movie mashes it with Gerde’s Folk Club, the only one in the Village that had a liquor license.

            --Inside Llewyn Davis is also the name of the character’s album. The idea came from Inside Dave Van Ronk. Though it was released in 1963, not 1961, it was perhaps Van Ronk’s ‘folkiest’ album. Van Ronk was actually more of a blues, ragtime, and swing aficionado. It also had a cat peering out of a doorway. A cat figures prominently in the film.

            --Van Ronk looked and sounded nothing like Oscar Isaac. Van Ronk was 6’5” and heavyset; he also sang in a gruff, gravely voice, not Isaac’s dulcet tones.

            --Llewyn’s agent, Mel Novikoff (Jerry Grayson) and his record company (Legacy), are based on Moe Asch and Folkways Records, Van Ronk’s label. Asch was indeed famed for seldom paying royalties, but also for giving artists money from his own pocket. Asch was probably more disorganized than dishonest; Folkways churned out an average of an album a week between 1948 and 1986.

            --Davis lives on the streets and cadges crash space from friends; Van Ronk had his own place in the Village where others crashed.
            --In the film, Davis is a solo act because his partner, Mike, committed suicide. Van Ronk never had a partner, though his good friend, Paul Clayton, killed himself. That, however, occurred in 1967, and he electrocuted himself–perhaps despondent over his gay identity at a time in which gays were closeted.

            --Davis journeys to the Gate of Horn in Chicago to see Albert “Bud” Grossman (F. Murray Abraham). Both were real. Van Ronk played the Horn on several occasions, though it’s true Grossman would not hire him on a regular basis. Grossman employed black singers such as Sonny Terry and Odetta and he found Van Ronk’s white blues inauthentic.

            --In the film, Grossman tells Davis he isn’t a front man and offers him a place in a trio he’s forming. This happened to Van Ronk, who turned down the offer. Noel Stookey took his slot when Peter, Paul and Mary were formed!

            --Grossman was also Bob Dylan’s manger.

            --On screen, Davis gets a quick payday for studio work on a novelty song, “Please Mr. Kennedy.” That was the name of a real song, though it was about being drafted, not being sent into outer space. The Coens also drew upon a popular comedy song by Larry Verne titled “Please Mr. Custer.”

            --Van Ronk, like Davis, twice served in the Merchant Marines and would have gone a third time, except his papers were stolen (not tossed away).

            --Van Ronk, like Davis, hated commercial folk. He especially disliked the Kingston Trio and (ahem!) Peter, Paul and Mary.

            --Roland Turner is loosely based on Dr. John, with a splash of Doc Pomus.

            --The character of Al Cody resembles Ramblin’ Jack Elliott.

            --Troy Nelson (Stark Sands) was inspired U.S. Army clerk typist Tom Paxton, who indeed played New York City folk clubs whilst stationed at Fort Dix! Paxton was raised Oklahoma.

            --In the movie, Davis harasses an Appalachian Autoharp player and balladeer. She’s Nancy Blake, the wife of famed bluegrass picker Norman Blake. Nancy, however, did not begin playing professionally until the 1970s.

            --Davis also disdains a quartet of Arran-sweatered Irish singers that are an obvious reference to The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, who were already well known in Ireland. In 1961, The Clancys performed on The Ed Sullivan Show and were soon world famous.
            --At the very end of the film, a character that is clearly Bob Dylan sings “Farewell.” This is a remake of “The Leaving of Liverpool.” Dylan, however, did not learn this song until 1962.

            --Van Ronk and Dylan were friends, not rivals. Neither man shared Davis’ concern for keeping folk music “pure.” The two occasionally shared stages.

            --Nobody seems to know who or what the silent Beat poetry loving Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund) character is supposed to represent. He’s probably just a composite Beat.

            --T-Bone Burnett has gotten a lot of acclaim for his musical production on Inside Llewyn Davis. Let’s give him minor kudos for directing the actors to do their own singing instead of lip-synching, but in truth the soundtrack is listless. There are many better recordings of all the songs on this soundtrack.



Best and Worst of 2013

Best and Worst of 2013

On a personal level I couldn't wait for 2013 to end. I never suffered from triskaidekaphobia before (your first vocabulary word for 2014!), but the past year sucked–3 family deaths, friends who lost loved ones, messy divorces (not for me, thank goddess), and a bout with shingles. In all, 2013 flat out sucked! But there was joy and fortune as well. In that mixed spirit, I shift to the cultural level to select the best and worst of 2013.


Album of the Year:  Josienne Clarke and Ben Walker, Fire & Fortune. It’s not often someone gets billed as the “next Sandy Denny” and lives up to it, but Ms. Clarke is a rare talent whose voice is as strong and clear as it is beautiful. Even if she flames out entirely, though, this record will stand on its own merits.

Heather Maloney’s self-titled album is a worthy runner-up.

Worst Album of the Year: Antonio Loureiros, Só. It’s not inept, just meandering and shapeless, as if the musician was unaware of anyone other than himself.

Best Concert(s) of the Year: 2013 was a terrific year for live shows. Shows by Ellis Paul, Alisdair Fraser, and Genticorum were stunning, but I’m going to cop out and declare a tie between Richard Thompson and Richard Shindell. Thompson’s solo acoustic show at the Calvin Theater in September was hard to beat. He’s classified as a folk-rocker, but the man rocks even when he sings a lullaby (which the dark RT never does, unless the tale ends badly). As a guitarist he’s nonpareil.

I saw Richard Shindell twice last year, once at the Iron Horse in February, and again at the Signature Sounds Parlor Room. I don’t know what occurred at the Horse, but when he showed up at the Parlor Room in September, he went on and on about how he preferred playing there.  At the Parlor Room he played with freeness and freshness I hadn’t heard in a while; he even cracked a few jokes, which is rare as a supermodel gobbling a grinder. What a show!

Worst Concert of the Year:  The Calvin Theater, November: Great Big Sea. Okay, GBS is enjoying a breakout in its 20th year. It has legions of adoring fans who’d listen to them fart. My standard is that if you can’t bother to enunciate, don’t do a sound check, adopt a rock persona but only strike the pose and not the notes, you get no love from me. A huge boo hiss! to the Calvin. Would someone please send venue owner Eric Suher the memo that there is no excuse for bad sound in the 21st century.


Best Novel of the Year: T’was a good year for novels, but the one I enjoyed most was from Jess Walter, Beautiful Ruins. Set amidst the contrasting splendor and squalor of the Amalfi Coast in the early 60s, Walter explores the beauty and the sadness of all manner of ruins–buildings, careers, love affairs, and lives.

A not-so-distant runner-up is The Death of Bees by Lisa O’Donnell, a tale of two teenaged Glasgow girls trying to hide their parents’ death so they can be together. It is, at once, heartbreaking and inspiring.

Worst Novel of the Year:  There’s lots of utter rubbish published each year, so my low bar is books that should have been contenders; that is, wasted material. I declare a tie between The Celestials by Karen Shepard and Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. How do make a story of 19th century Chinese immigrants into a snowy New England mill town ordinary? Focus on an imagined Victorian romance with an exceedingly dull woman at the center.

Other writers adored Atkinson’s story of a girl who is born, dies, and is reborn onto a new life path. It has its moments, but it’s the most over-hyped novel of the year. The central hook is a contrivance and the won’t-stay-dead character at its center is passive and uninteresting in most of her reincarnations.

Best Academic Book of the Year: Kudos to Andrew Erdman for Queen of Vaudeville, the fascinating story of Eva Tanguay–perhaps the most famous star you’ve never heard of. It’s an engagingly written book that makes us feel the burning spotlights, smell the floorboard dust, and long to throttle the ones who abuse or waste talent.

Worst Academic Book of the Year: There’s no way to choose just one, so I won’t name names. The truth is that most academics could put readers to sleep whilst scrawling “This End Up” on a cardboard box. 


This is always a tough one. Those of us who don’t live in LA or New York don’t even get to see most of the films that will get Oscar nominations until the calendar flips. My list contains films actually viewed in the cinema, regardless of how Hollywood regards their release date.

Best American Film of the Year: Give Weir’s Oscar (Woscar?) to Nebraska, a film that does for this generation what The Last Picture Show did in the 1970s. Still believe in the American Dream? Take a trip to Hawthorne, NB and get back to me. Bruce Dern wrings more emotion from being quiet than a cascade of Hollywood contrived speeches.

Best Foreign Film of the Year:  The best thing I saw all year, by a wide margin, was the French film Amour. What would you do for love? It’s what you’d do in the final days that really count. Jean Louis Trintignat will break your heart with a performance in which small actions speak louder than words.

Worst American Film of the Year:  Again, there’s so much drivel that my vote goes to a film that seeks to do something important and does it badly. Lots of people loved Silver Linings Playbook, but the ridiculous football subthemes trivialized what should have been centered on how society makes it hard for people whose social disorders to fit in. Star Trek: Into Darkness was also a big disappointment. What? All that money and they couldn’t hire someone to write a script that wasn’t a remake of The Wrath of Khan?

Best Independent Film of the Year:    No God, No Master looks at the Red Scare of the 1920s from the point of view of an agent seeking to stymie the anarchist bombings, even though he hates some of their targets. David Strathairn stars in the movie that is what J Edgar should have been.

Worst Independent Film of the Year:  It pains me to say it as it was shot locally and has people I know in it, but Names on the Bridge by Elizabeth Foley is such a mess that it’s the worst film I saw in 2013–bar none.

Best Video Rental:  I missed Cloud Atlas in the theater, mostly because the novel underwhelmed me. The film is miles better­–an intelligent look at the interconnectedness of lives past, present, and future. It’s a head scratcher in places, but you’ll think about it long after it’s over.

The most surprising video was Robert Redford’s smart The Company You Keep, an unapologetic look at the lives of ‘60s revolutionaries 40 years out. This one is a neo-con’s nightmare, but it was a sweet dream for me.

Worst Video Rental: The 1969 James Mason film The Age of Consent weathers as well as a pair of papier-mâché tennis shoes.


Nebraska is Best Film of 2013

Directed by Alexander Payne
Paramount, 115 minutes, R (for language, sexual banter, and because the ratings system is insane)
* * * * *

Woody hanging on.
12 Years a Slave is the year’s most important movie, but Nebraska is its best. Similarly, Bruce Dern would be a shoo-in to win the Best Actor Oscar in any year he didn’t face competition from colleagues portraying Solomon Northrup or Nelson Mandela, but his is also the finest single performance of the year.

By now you’ve probably heard the narrative arc, one that bears some resemblance to The Straight Story (1999). A grizzled and partially senile curmudgeon named Woody Grant (Dern) receives one of those magazine come-ons announcing he has won a million dollars (small print: if your number matches) and decides to walk from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his prize. His sons David (Will Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk) try to drill sense into the old codger’s head, but he’s having none of it. It says right on the paper that he’s won a million bucks and, by God, he means to claim it and he isn’t about to trust the U.S. mail to deliver his check. Woody is more than confused; as his long-suffering wife Kate (June Squibb) confirms, Woody in his dotage is as stubborn as he’s always been—the kind of guy who decides the sky isn’t blue and, damn it, it’s not. He’s also a miserable SOB who was a problem drinker, a carouser, and a terrible father who was emotionally and physically absent. In short, Woody’s the sort of bastard who, if he wasn’t your father, you’d let him die in a ditch. For all of that, David decides to humor the old fart and drive him toward Lincoln in the (vain) hope has can talk some sense into his fool head.

The film is, in essence, a road trip and like others of that genre involves a serious of mishaps and misadventures. It also features a stopover in Hawthorne, Nebraska, Woody’s hometown, and one filled with relatives, old flames, a shady former business partner, Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach), and conflicting versions of who stole from whom. In Hawthorne, we discover what the film is really about: the death of the American Dream. Nebraska is filmed in black and white, which displays the rural nightmare of Hawthorne much better than color ever could. The surrounding prairie is a place of harsh and stark beauty, but there’s nothing to redeem Hawthorne, a dying town populated by elderly people, the skeletal remains of former shops and enterprises, and a couple of seedy taverns. Not since Peter Bogdanovich offered us Anarene, Texas, in The Last Picture Show (1971) have we seen a town this unrelentingly bleak. 

Payne takes us a step further. No one will believe David when he tells them Woody isn’t rich; they simply assume the family doesn’t want to share their windfall. That’s because it’s not just the town that’s dying, but all the people in it. A poignant visit to the local cemetery to visit Grants in the ground drives this home. Squibb has a delicious scene in which she reveals her own raunchy past and spills the beans on the (less than) angels reposing beneath monuments. But she also notices residents of whose passing she was unaware. What ‘life’ there is in town is found in the taverns, but one gets the feeling that the barstools are just rotating tombstones. There sure isn’t much of a pulse among the assembled Grant clan gathered at the home of Uncle Ray (Rance Howard) and Aunt Martha (Mary Louise Wilson) to congratulate Woody (and to plot how they can get a slice of his million-dollar pie). There is a scene of a cramped roomful of Grant men watching a football game—the histrionics of the announcer a sardonic contrast to the tightlipped Grants. The tableau is so heartbreaking that we long to flee and weep. Would it really matter if any of them struck it rich? What would Woody’s brain-dead cousins Bart and Cole do with that much money? It’s doubtful they can count past ten.

Have I given too much plot? Not really. This film is more about what doesn’t happen than what does. And one must believe that Payne wants to take down the nonsense that America is a land of boundless wealth and opportunity. Dern’s Woody is the human equivalent of Hawthorne—a physical wreck unaware of his outward shabbiness, holding on to a thin stitch holding his forehead together and an even thinner one fastening him to sanity and life itself. Dern is, simply, magnificent in the role. Likewise, Squibb’s performance is revelatory. She strikes a delicate balance between caring and sarcasm, humor and tenacity. It would be a travesty if she doesn’t win a Best Supporting Actress Oscar.

Make no mistake; Nebraska is not an uplifting film (and the theater trailers do it a disservice by making it appear to be an edgy comedy). It’s hard to watch, but you won’t view a better American film in 2013.

Rob Weir