My son Kieran and I went to see “Inside Llewyn Davis”, the latest Coen brothers film, this evening. It has just been released in the UK. We both really liked it. I was drawn to it after reading a brief review of it on one of my favourite blogs, Little By Listen, when the boys made it their fourth favourite film of 2013 and the reviewer his second. I hugely respect their choices on music, and this was a film rooted in music, so it had to be seen.
The film is said to be based on the experiences of a folk singer called Dave van Ronk, who was one of the main figures in the Greenwich Village folk scene in the early sixties. I read about him in Bob Dylan’s “Chronicles, Volume 1”, published in 2004. We are still waiting for volume two, though it is said to be on its way. The book wasn’t a straight time-based narrative. It wandered all over the place, but did have a focus on Dylan’s early days in New York. And Dave van Ronk features strongly, in a good way. My recollection is that he was the king of the castle in the Village. He never made it on a national level. Dylan came along and did that through his sheer genius. Van Ronk was the purist, destined to be great but only in his specialised pool. Nothing wrong with that.
The film doesn’t portray Llewyn Davis as positively as I remember him in Dylan’s book. (I’m hedging my bets a bit here as I haven’t gone back to check the book). He’s a figure on the decline. With a lot of problems. No money, made a fellow singer Jean (played feistily by Carey Mulligan) pregnant, old singing partner committed suicide, sleeping on people’s sofas, lost the host’s cat in one case (quite a theme in the film), can’t afford a coat at the height of the New York winter. But he’s engaging, attractive and seems to bounce back most times. He doesn’t achieve much, but nor has he failed. Because the music he plays is quite beautiful.
Llewyn is played by Oscar Isaac, Guatemalan/ Cuban actor with a musical background before he became an actor. That is key for “Inside Llewyn Davis” because he sings and plays the music which redeems the character. Llewyn/van Ronk is a traditionalist. His music is folk rooted not so much in old America as Britain and Ireland. The thing I call Celtic Soul. For me the two most heartfelt moments of the film, the moments that make it more than another stylish Coen Brothers film, are performances of old folk songs to single audiences. The first is when Llewyn makes it to Chicago and persuades a prominent producer to listen to him. He plays a beautiful song about the lives and loves surrounding Henry VIII of England. The camera work is brilliant at this moment. It focuses on the face of the listener, who is clearly moved. His face remains passive, but you can see it in the eyes. You can see he wants to support Llewyn, but says, this won’t sell. Offers him a harmony part in a trio. Devastating.
And then there’s a scene, incidental to the main plot (if there is a plot) when Llewyn visits his ageing father, in a old people’s home. The father is sitting there, completely blank. Llewyn plays him a seafaring ballad – his father was in the merchant navy, as was Llewyn at some point. The passive face stays, but the eyes twitch and his head moves to the side, to look out the window. The camera pans close up. For me this was the most moving scene in the film. Understated, but profound. And then we hear that the father has messed up his trousers….
It’s a film about failure, about coping with failure and messed up lives. Nothing much is achieved. There is plenty of weirdness, especially when Llewyn ends up on a journey to Chicago with a very strange jazz musician played by John Goodman. That bit is incidental. Coen playfulness. If anything, just adding to the hopelessness of Llewyn’s situation. And biting in its attack on folk music, its simplicity compared with the scales of jazz. (I’m with folk on that – simplicity makes most of the truly great music).
The times – that early sixties world – are conveyed beautifully. In the the way people dress and in the appearance of New York. Think that iconic “Freewheeling Bob Dylan” album cover. It’s there.
And I think that is the thing about this film. It’s a labour of love for the era, the place, the music. Yes, there is the bitter failure of the man who didn’t make it. The matter rubbed home in the last frames, when a singer, clearly Bob Dylan, is singing at the Gaslight Club, poised for stardom.
But if Dave van Ronk/ Llewyn Davis didn’t make it they helped to pave the way for so many singers who enhanced the sixties, challenged the norm, set pop music on its way to a huge prominence in society.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” is going to be one of those films, I suspect, which is a bit of a slow burner to start, but which becomes a cult choice in the future, a student staple, and a musical must-have. Some of the reviews I read have already started to try to read into the role of the lost cat. It’s called Ulysses. Cue links to Greek myths and James Joyce.
But really it’s all about the music. As I’m writing this, I’m playing Bob Dylan, of course.
What else could I do?