Film Review: A Splendid Homage to the Greenwich Village Folk Scene — “Inside Llewyn Davis”

For many boomers, the film will be a joyous invitation to wallow in déjà vu. For younger generations, it will shine a light on a time when musicians really thought music could change the world.

Inside Llewyn Davis. Directed and edited by Joel and Ethan Coen. At cinemas around New England.

Issac and cat in "Inside Llewyn Davis."

Oscar Issac and cat in “Inside Llewyn Davis.”

by Tim Jackson

Like their 2000 hit O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the Coen Brothers latest musical film, Inside Llewyn Davis, is a skillful blend of great songs, picturesque characters, and arresting images. The tone of this film is more somber than the earlier effort, but it still manages to tap into the collective consciousness of the early Greenwich Village folk scene, or the ‘great folk scare’ as it euphemistically referred to at the time.

Despite endless travails on his journey to non-stardom, the title figure, Llweyn Davis, remains indefatigably romantic and idealistic, exuding the dreamy, warm-hearted love of an affecting lyric and patient melody that inspired a generation that came of age with the election of President John F. Kennedy. It was a generation fascinated by the Beat generation, which rebelled against the homogeneity and hypocrisy of the Eisenhower decade. The film reminds us that, despite the commercial changes looming on the horizon, this was a time when folk music mattered and greatness wasn’t (necessarily) measured in dollars, vocal acrobatics, and overstuffed arrangements. Still, folk was show business, and not so welcoming to every wayfaring stranger.

As embodied by Oscar Isaac, Llewyn comes off as a stirring performer. The choice of this lesser known actor, who sings and plays with impressive soulfulness, draws us into the period’s mythology: casting either an actor or musician with a known history would have undercut this needed impression of authenticity. Isaac/Davis, far from being a mediocre talent, is a compelling presence, which makes the story that much more poignant. Growing up around that scene in the ’60s, I saw dozens of such performers. Some made it, some didn’t. Talent has never been the sole deciding factor — then or now. To make it in music you eat lots of crow and make a lot of compromises, and then hope for a pile of luck and good timing.

Still, given the trials and tribulations of a musician’s existence, Llweyn’s personal life is a comic mess. The film is an expansive coming-of-age story, the struggle of innocence (and an innocent) to mature both culturally and personally. I can’t help but think the character’s name refers to Peter Llewelyn Davies, who James Barrie identified as the source for Peter Pan. Just as Mary Martin swung across our TV screens singing “I won’t grow up,” our hapless titular hero can’t quite find adulthood in his zigzagging quest across the folk landscape. The Davis character owes much to the history and experiences of Dave Van Ronk, whose own memoir The Mayor of MacDougal Street supplies many of the film’s anecdotes as well as setting out the progressive ethos of the film. The book offers a compelling blend of myth and reality, its realism putting meat on the bone of archetypes.

Much of the success of a film is in the casting, and it’s a Coen strong point. Llewyn Davis’s rambling odyssey is filled with extraordinary characters. The Coens pay homage to the crazy quilt history of the folk era and its varied roots, including its old time show-biz managers and wheeler-dealers. Authentic folk, as exemplified by Van Ronk and symbolized in the experience of Davis, is grounded in an uncompromising left-wing politics that was nearly crushed during the paranoid days of anti-communist fervor in the ’50s. Davis’s stubbornness is rooted in earnest ideological commitment, as well as in an uncompromising quest for authenticity. His intransigence becomes particularly painful when — down to his last dollar, with nowhere to stay, a girlfriend filled with unrelenting anger — he sees everyone around him as selling out.

As Davis’s ex-girlfriend Jean, Carey Mulligan, one of the sweetest actresses in the movies, turns in a vicious performance playing the endlessly bitching girlfriend. Her anger lashes at Davis while her delicate beauty and tender singing voice leave him confounded. She is part of a Peter, Paul, and Mary style trio with Jim Berkey (an understated Justin Timberlake). After a powerful vocal performance from Issac, Timberlake sings gentle harmonies on the classic “500 Miles.” The film contains the whole song. The tune is not a plot device; it’s music. The film embraces a kind of mellow musical nostalgia, at the same time introducing a younger audience to blues, hillbilly (or what some call ‘twang’), Weavers’ style labor songs, sea shanties, and Irish folk songs.

The film looks, affectionately, at the idiosyncrasies of those who built the nascent American folk scene. One brilliant cameo comes from Stark Sands (a Broadway performer in Kinky Boots, American Idiot, and more) playing Troy Nelson, a young soldier who is staying with Jean. The character is based on Tom Paxton, a gentle performer who did a tour in the army before emerging in the early folk revival. (Paxton is still performing.) In the film, Nelson is a fresh scrubbed rookie, an up and coming folkie who looks to be an unlikely candidate to succeed in such a tough career. His good nature and unerring politeness stand in stark contrast to the feisty Davis. When Nelson takes the stage, his angelic voice is arresting. The song he sings, “The Last Thing On My Mind,” was written by Paxton, and it typifies the plaintive sweetness of the best of early folk. The tune has been adapted by artists as varied as Judy Collins, Joan Baez, Neil Diamond, The Seekers, Doc Watson, Porter Wagner/Dolly Parton, and of course Peter, Paul, and Mary. Nelson’s rendition is a splendid blending of the real and the mythic.

A scene from "Inside Llewyn Davis."

A scene from “Inside Llewyn Davis.”

The film even takes on some of the silliness of folk’s novelty songs. Llweyn is hired, along with Timberlake’s Jim and Adam Driver’s ‘Al Cody,’ to record a ridiculous song called “Dear Mr. Kennedy.” The quirky looking Driver, who plays the obnoxious sometimes boyfriend to Lena Dunham in the HBO series Girls, wears a Ramblin’ Jack Elliott cowboy hat while singing a ludicrous vocal bass part. The song sounds like it might have been one of rejected candidates for the soundtrack of Christopher Guest’s great 2003 parody of the aging folk scene, A Mighty Wind. As soon as Llewyn signs away his rights to any residuals for some needed cash, you know the song will go on to be a hit.

That brings us to the business of selling folk. Sylvia Kauders gets big laughs as a mole-like secretary hunched over her typewriter while screeching at Llweyn’s unresponsive agent Mel Novikoff (Jerry Grayson), a character based on Moses Asch, the founder of Folkway Records. (“Mel. I don’t even have a warm jacket,” pleads Llewyn. “What – ya want a jacket? Take mine”) F. Murray Abraham’s Bud Grossman is all icy stillness as he listens to Llweyn’s heartrending delivery of the traditional ballad “The Death of Queen Jane,” a performance that ends with a moving use of Acapella. Bud stares at him. We wait. Finally, he says simply, “I don’t see a lot of money here.” Bud was no doubt modeled on the tenacious Al Grossman, who managed Odetta, Peter, Paul and Mary, John Lee Hooker, Ian and Sylvia, and Phil Ochs among others. John Goodman also stands out as a dilapidated and overweight hipster.

Along with the right-on allusions and appropriations of the story there is the beautiful cinematography of Bruno Delbonnel, who has shot the film in muted, desaturated tones that evokes old Kodak film stock. The directors frame images that capture the iconic clubs, small stages, and streets of the era.

In his book, Van Ronk explains that “a lot of both middle class left-wingers and workers back in the thirties were first or second immigrants and the folk revival served as a way for them to establish American roots.” For many boomers the film will be a joyous invitation to wallow in déjà vu, a pleasurable exercise in time travel. For other generations, it will shine a light on a time when musicians really thought music could change the world.

Tim Jackson is an assistant professor at the New England Institute of Art in the Digital Film and Video Department. His music career in Boston began in the 1970s and includes some 20 groups, many recordings, national and international tours, and contributions to film soundtracks. He studied theater and English as an undergraduate and has also has worked helter skelter as an actor and member of SAG and AFTRA since the 1980s. He has directed two documentaries: Chaos and Order: Making American Theater about the American Repertory Theater, and Radical Jesters, which profiles the practices of 11 interventionist artists and agit-prop performance groups. He is currently finishing a third documentary, When Things Go Wrong, about the Boston singer/songwriter Robin Lane, with whom he has worked for 30 years. You can read more of his work on his blog.

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