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 CafĂ© 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.


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