This column is usually reserved for films that are actively involved in rock ‘n’ roll, not just movies dedicated to music. But like any art form, music and its varied influences are fluid. The most recent work by the Coen Brothers, Inside Llewyn Davis deals with the folk music revival of the early ‘60s. Even though the music is softer than what I usually prefer, the folk revival had a major influence on the music of the ‘60s and decades that’ve followed. Bands like The Byrds made Dylan’s Mr. Tambourine Man to number 1 on the charts; The Animals took House of the Rising Sun, a traditional New Orleans folk song, to the top of the charts; The Beau Brummels infused folk and rock with songs like Laugh, Laugh. Much in the way that many people refer to the dormant period of rock ‘n’ roll between Elvis’ time in the Army and the start of the British Invasion with The Beatles, folk had a dormant period of its own, the time between the heyday of Woody Guthrie and the rise of Bob Dylan. It’s during the tail end of that period that Inside Llewyn Davis takes place.
The film doesn’t really have a plot, it just follows Llewyn throughout a rough week in his life. After the death of his singing partner, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is adrift in the cold, harsh streets of New York City. His solo record for a small time folk label is barely selling and he floats from couch to couch. After one night staying with the Gorfeins (Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett), a loving couple who welcome him into their home, Llewyn accidentally lets their cat out. Llewyn carries the cat with him to Jim and Jean’s apartment. Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Jean (Carey Mulligan) are a folk duo in a relationship, though Llewyn and Jean had a one-night fling. Jean is now pregnant and unsure whether Jim or Llewyn is the father which causes Jean to want an abortion. Jim is recording a novelty record for Columbia Records and hires Llewyn to play on the record. During the session, Llewyn meets Al Cody (Adam Driver), a folk singer himself who sets him up with a couch to stay for an evening. Cody then sets Llewyn up with Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund) and Roland Turner (John Goodman) who are travelling to Chicago and allow Llewyn to travel along with them. Llewyn wants to go to Chicago to audition for Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham), a manager of folk artists and owner of the influential Gate of Horn club. The audition doesn’t yield the results Llewyn was expecting, so he travels back to New York with the intention of leaving the folk game and hitting the high seas as a sailor. But as is the case for nearly everything Llewyn touches, nothing goes quite as planned.
Much like the Coens’ loosely based Barton Fink on the screenwriter Clifford Odets, they do the same with Llewyn Davis, loosely basing him on Dave Van Ronk. A folk singer with a raspy voice, Van Ronk was a prominent figure in the folk revival, one album of his was entitled Inside Dave Van Ronk and even featured a little cat at his feet. Though Van Ronk is the character’s inspiration, Llewyn Davis seems to have a closer relation to Barton Fink. Davis and Fink see themselves as great artists even though they’re undone by their own high-mindedness. Their self-centered mindset prevents them from considering the feelings of others, always overflowing with condescension. The same way Barton speaks of an idealistic theater for the common man while writing a wrestling picture for Wallace Beery, Llewyn speaks of playing music for a living and show business even though he’s a homeless drifter.
And there are other allusions to prior Coen Brothers films. The car ride with a perpetually silent Johnny Five and the talkative Roland Turner brings memories of Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare in Fargo. The runaway cat is named Ulysses, the same name as George Clooney’s character in their depression-era take on Homer’s Odyssey, O Brother, Where Art Thou?.
The rest of the characters are have their roots in real life as well. Bud Grossman is based upon Albert Grossman, the owner of the Gate of Horn, a popular folk venue featured in the film, and was the manager for such acts like Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul, and Mary, and Janis Joplin. Roland Turner is based upon Doc Pomus, a songwriter who briefly was a performer. Crippled as child from polio, Pomus’ single Heartlessly was held back by the label because they believed a crippled singer leaning on crutches couldn’t sell records. When knowing of Pomus’ physical ailments the song Save the Last Dance For Me transforms from a nice pop ditty into a woefully tragic song of heartbreak. There was also a real Jim and Jean, with Jean having provided the inspiration for Neil Young’s Cinnamon Girl.
Since Inside Llewyn Davis is a Coen Brothers film, it’s wide open for interpretation. The Coens are not ones to tell anyone which part is a joke and what parts are serious. There are a number of excellent pieces dissecting the varied nuances of the film. Matt Singer at The Dissolve sees the film as the Coens imagining life without one another. Devin Faraci at Badass Digest looks into the questions of authenticity surrounding the film, namely how the polished sound Llewyn’s music is out of place in the era of the folk revival. In that same piece, Faraci wonders if the cat is a play on the popular screenwriting book Save the Cat – knowing how the Coens freely play with the screenwriting form, I wholeheartedly believe they’re mocking a simple formula. Then there are the questions surrounding the Gorfeins. Many wonder if the Gorfeins were the parents of Mike, Llewyn’s deceased singing partner. I think the answer is obvious: yes. All one has to do is look at the expression of the Gorfein’s faces when Llewyn sings If I Had Wings without his partner at the dinner table. It’s subtle glance but tells you everything, showing once again how great cinema doesn’t have to spell everything out.
Even though I’ve lamented at the heavily desaturated colors of Clint Eastwood’s Jersey Boys, the desaturated color fits in the framework of Inside Llewyn Davis. It’s a cold and bleak winter in Llewyn Davis’ cold and bleak existence. But the film isn’t cold and bleak, it has a dry humor that rises to the surface with successive viewing. There are no titles in the film. It begins as it ends, at the Gaslight. But when we’re returned to Gaslight we see and hear who takes the stage after Llewyn, a little known singer named Bob Dylan. This plot-less wandering drama ends with a bang that would change the world. It’s just an unconventional bang.