Another damn day, take it away / Gotta make my gig on time / Playin’ guitar, bein’ a star, / stumbling for nickels and dimes…
Those lines come from the legendary folk singer Dave van Ronk—they open his raspy satire “Gaslight Rag”—but they could just as easily be what’s running through the cold, wet, constantly embittered head of Llewyn Davis, the hero of Joel and Ethan Coen’s new movie. Inside Llewyn Davis takes place in and around Greenwich Village during the thick of the early Sixties folk revival—as Michael Koresky puts it at Reverse Shot, a moment “after the revival of folk music as a mainstream genre, largely for harmonizing groups, like the white-bread, widely accessible Kingston Trio, and before the rise of more idiosyncratic, politically minded solo artists like Dylan and Joan Baez.”
On one level, this period is comfortable terrain for the Coens, who have always had a sharp eye for contrasts ranging from the comic to the pathetic: in this film, there’s the grimy dive bar that plays host to squeaky-clean harmonizing acts, the angel-voiced balladeer who proves herself capable of shooting out vicious invectives onstage, or the folk singer—Llewyn—who willfully makes enemies of everyone he meets, yet performs with the unchecked vulnerability of a man desperate to open up. “You might well expect mockery in a film about the early Sixties folk milieu,” writes Jonathan Romney in the November/December issue of FILM COMMENT, “long derided as the last word in studious non-chic, despite recent attempts to reclaim it for modish hipsterism…[and] there are indeed some knowing chuckles to be had in Inside Llewyn Davis about the Village scene’s piety, the narcissistic earnestness of certain LP sleeves, and in one scene, a farcically bouncy novelty single. Yet Inside Llewyn Davis proves to be the most moving film the Coens have ever made.” For Romney, that’s a function of the “compassion leveled by calm detachment” that the Coens direct towards their hero—and, more broadly, towards an entire generation of pre-Dylan folkies.
In a detailed write-up of Llewyn Davis for Rolling Stone, rock critic Robert Christgau considers the movie’s extended, full-song musical scenes—all original performances by, among others, Justin Timberlake, Marcus Mumford, and the film’s star, Oscar Isaac—as a new leap forward in realism for the Brothers. The movie’s “documentary feel,” he writes, quoting the Coens’ music producer T-Bone Burnett, “begins with the real-time recording—begins before it, actually, with the microphone that fills the first shot, and before the first song is over has invoked the vérité touch of the audience member who passes between camera and stage.”
For David Beal at Double Exposure, on the other hand, “every live performance at the Gaslight Cafe sounds like it was recorded in a studio vacuum, whether or not it actually was.” The results are, he suggests, more glossed-over than vérité: “the actors sing traditional songs in a rarefied pop warble; no one ever really makes a mistake.” The implication is that Burnett and the Coens have done on a level of sonic engineering what the folkies they’re memorializing did on the level of composition and performance: taken a previous musical tradition and smoothed out its rougher contours. Christgau proposes that this is actually true to music history: “[Van Ronk] growled and rasped, albeit with considerable delicacy and humor, and thus sounded more authentic [than Isaac], if by that you mean remaining true to his 1928-34 models. But if by authentic you mean replicating the folk revival in the week of February 1961…then Isaac has it right.” Both Christgau and Beal, however, suggest that a movie made in the spirit of the largely risk-averse early-Sixties folk revival would lack the frayed edges, spontaneous outbursts and stretches of tension that set apart so many great music movies.
But to what extent is Llewyn Davis supposed to function as a music movie—or, more precisely, as an accurate re-creation of a specific time and place in music history? The film has been roundly praised for its period detail, but it’s also been called, variously, a folk tale (A.O. Scott of the New York Times), an interior journey (Koresky), and an Odyssey (virtually everyone—the reference is made hilariously explicit in a late-film gag). Llewyn is the latest in a long string of Coen heroes to have their bumbling misfortunes translated to the level of legend or myth, sometimes explicitly cited (Job in A Serious Man, Homer again in O Brother, Where Art Thou?), at other times more generally sketched (the Dude’s rambling picaresque journey in The Big Lebowski, Barton Fink’s encounter with a modern-day devil). In each of those films, the Coens took great pains to bring a specific historical moment to vivid life—but history, in each case, was the villain of the piece, constantly frustrating the hero’s stabs at self-mythologizing, reminding him of his tiny (or non-existent) place in posterity.
For the most part, that’s also true of the entire pre-Dylan New York folk scene, which is perhaps what drew the Coens to the period: an era-full of promising would-bes about to be washed away by the tide of history. At the close of his article, Romney speculates what might happen to Llewyn after the movie’s last cut: “Perhaps he'll hang up his guitar for good—and perhaps be rediscovered by folk scholars in years to come. Alternatively, you can imagine him 15 years down the line, turning up on a date or two of Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue as an onstage guest, revered by the odd insider but otherwise still forever obscure.” In this light, the Coens’ decision to have contemporary superstars re-record the era’s standards—close-miked, cleaned-up recording practices aside—feels unexpectedly generous, as if they’re giving their hero the very thing they’ve been telling him all along he’s not fated to have: a chance at immortality.