I rarely see movies – which is maybe something I shouldn’t readily admit to potential backers of the film script I’m supposedly writing. Last film I saw, in fact, was Les Miserables – stirring stuff, but who the hell cast Russell Crowe?!? However, lured by the offer of canapes and free wine, I was coaxed out of my suburban reverie to see a preview of the new movie Inside Llewyn Davis, a film with three irresistible attractions – the Coen Brothers, early 1960s Greenwich Village and a ginger cat. What’s not to love about that?
To be honest, the Coen Brothers would have done it for me without the music or the ginger cat. Their films invariably come at you with such a deliciously evil smirk you don’t know whether to laugh, cry or spin on your head singing Yankee Doodle Dandy. I always reckoned their O Brother Where Art Thou was about the only decent film about music since Slade In Flame – though grudging doffs of the cap should be offered to 24 Hour Party People and Telstar: The Joe Meek Story…and the Ray Charles biopic Ray wasn’t bad either. Oh, and I Walk The Line and The Coalminer’s Daughter and naturally the Buena Vista Social Club and… and… well apart from them.
Anyway Inside Llewyn Davis…it’s brilliant. Interpret it as you wish. A wry sideways glance at the lot of the jobbing troubadour…a tawdry snapshot of the unglamorous early rumblings of the American folk music revolution…a classic study of an objectionable anti-hero…an affectionate tribute to a purer, more innocent kind of music before the sharks, accountants and commerce got involved.
Being the Coen Brothers little is explained and nothing much happens…yet through nuance, inflection, rugged cinematography, tautly drawn characters and a sparing script, it taunts you all the way with its humour, poignancy and despair. All laced with irresistible charm.
The downtrodden Llewyn Davis makes enemies without blinking. A fractious, ornery 1961 folk singer in Greenwich Village who hates folk music…and seemingly everyone involved in it. Yet his character is not without redemption. Beneath a frying pan of chips on his shoulder and unremitting bitterness towards a world he perceives as contriving to trample all over him, he reveals a softer side both in his music and his concern for Ulysses, the cat he inadvertently kidnaps from an apartment where he’s crashed after a drunken binge. Oscar Isaac’s wonderfully offhand depiction of Llewyn is not only a very credible portrait of disillusionment and frustration, but a terrific musician too, who sings The Death Of Queen Jane with an emotional strength that would thrill any modern-day concert or festival.
Davis is supposedly based on Dave Van Ronk, the self-style Mayor of MacDougall St, who held court in Greenwich Village and was regarded as a kind of bohemian guru by the folk singers who flocked there and in many cases found fame and material rewards that far outstripped his own. More, you feel, it’s the sense of the times Van Ronk related in his autobiography which inspired the Coens to make this movie – it’s not biography, it’s not documentary and it’s not even much of a story; but It feels like a very real and vivid slice of a rarefied time in music history.
The reference points are keenly drawn. The ultra-nice middle class professionals who support Llewyn’s art and indulge his objectionable character; the appallingly twee song he’s forced to perform in a studio session (Justin Timberlake surprisingly effective as the tweeleader); the smiley Jean Ritchie autoharp character gamely ignoring Llewyn’s heckling; the earnest, desperate to be liked, crew-cutted soldier singing Last Thing On My Mind; the glee harmonising Peter, Paul & Mary sound-alikes; Carey Mulligan’s sweet butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-the-mouth persona on stage interchangeable with the bitter, sour-faced foul-mouthed woman wronged by Llewyn off it; the arran-sweatered Clancy Brothers belting out The Auld Triangle.
And then… right at the death, as our arch loser is given a good beating in the street outside the club where he’d offended most of the audience the night before, we get the slick pay-off with a glimpse and the sound of young Bob Dylan singing his own modern adaptation of Fare The Well – the song we’d just heard Llewyn sing – to rub the point home that the Coens are encapsulating both the end and the beginning of an era. And never mind that Dylan didn’t actually write his Farewell until two years later…there are other discrepancies that merit worrying about in such a brilliant evocation of a lost spirit.
The film even encompasses a road trip of sorts, seemingly only to incorporate a magnificent John Goodman cameo as a grotesque jazz buff who gets one of the best lines in the film. When Llewyn tells him how his former singing partner committed suicide, Goodman says “Well, I’d jump off the Washington Bridge If I had to sing fucking Jimmy Crack Corn every night….”
In Chicago he sings – powerfully – to an underwhelmed Al Grossman and then returns to confront the reality of his failure and deliver the movie’s one true moment of pathos singing Shoals Of Herring to his dying father. It may not be entirely accurate historically, but musical director T Bone Burnett’s selection of material is beautifully weighted to enhance the script. It may not have an impact on the collective psyche as his music for O Brother Where Art Thou, but it still leaves a profound mark.
As we leave the theatre the sound of Dave Van Ronk himself filters through the PA and, while he sounds nothing like Oscar Isaac’s version of him, you feel almost perversely gratified that his unruly individuality was never sullied or compromised by the twin evils of fame and celebrity. A new 2-CD compilation of Van Ronk is hitting stores (or at least, Amazon) as we speak and if Van Ronk makes it big posthumously as a result, the irony will be complete.
In a world only obsessed only with winners, we but thank Joel and Ethan Coen for their heroic celebration of outsiders, losers and outcasts.