Inside Llewyn Davis is a pitch-perfect tribute to a moment and place at the cusp of cultural change from the perspective of one stubborn man doomed to be passed by. Joel and Ethan Coen recreate and reimagine, with a few colorful notes of magic realism, the urban Americana folk music revival in a more restrained and less operatic odyssey than their rural O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) through the central beleaguered character, brought to life by the charismatic Oscar Isaac.
Llewyn Davis is having a bad week as if he is in the Book of Job, set in winter 1961. The audience at the Gaslight Cafe barely listens to his soulful rendition of a traditional song, and his off-stage life is comically out-of-tune as, despite his considerable charm, he wears out his welcome in the apartments of Greenwich Village and the couches on the Upper West Side. He has no gig in sight, no place to sleep, no royalties coming in from his one LP, no winter coat, and he is about to piss off his two loyal fans; his lover, who is his best friend’s wife; his sister in Queens; his union rep at his back-up job with the merchant marine; and even a cat—let alone a mysterious cowboy in the alley behind the club. At least he has credit with an abortion doctor.
His personal travails are very much related to his commitment to his conception of authenticity in folk music, how he reinterprets old songs through his own experiences, beautifully shown when he serenades his terminally ill, ex-seaman father with “Shoals of Herring.” (Isaac’s singing was the best thing in 2011’s 10 Years). His friends, and to some degree his competitors, in the folk clubs represent artists who will become more successful at catching the zeitgeist. With the songs and live performances supervised by T. Bone Burnett, in his fourth collaboration with the Coens, folk music fans will have fun picking out what composite character is like which real act. Davis’s fuming, cursing lover Jean Berkey (Carey Mulligan, who proved she could put over a song in Shame) is all sweetness when she’s on stage warbling Peter, Paul & Mary’s “500 Miles.” (As her singing partner, Justin Timberlake ironically channels his wholesome Mickey Mouse Club beginnings.)
The commercial world of slicker folk pop is satirized when Jim brings Davis in on a recording of a cute novelty number “Please, Mr. Kennedy.” (Girls viewers will recognize Adam Driver as the third member of the trio.) Lanky Broadway musical star Stark Sands, as an Oklahoman soldier on a weekend pass, heralds the first wave of singer-songwriters by nailing Tom Paxton’s “Last Thing on My Mind.” Onstage in the background are performers the quirky Davis disdains, who are like the Irish Clancy Brothers and the queen of the autoharp, Maybelle Carter.
The off-stage support mise-en-scène is wonderfully portrayed, including the irascible record company executive Mel Novikoff (Jerry Grayson) in a fond portrait of Moe Asch of Folkways Records, whose eclectic recordings are now enshrined in the Smithsonian’s collection. Davis’s Upper West Side supporters, the Gurfeins (Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett), reminded me very much of the lefty, intellectual counselors who brought these kind of LPs upstate to campers like me and Bonnie Raitt to listen to.
While the Coens’ A Serious Man (2009) opened with a folkloric scene, the borderline-fantasy sequence here is in the middle via a hilarious road trip. Davis ventures outside New York to audition in Chicago for the not-easily impressed impresario of the club Gate of Horn, Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham), in shades of the real-life folk singers’ manager Al Grossman. But to get there, Davis has to share driving for the eccentric Doc Pomus/Dr. John composite of jazzman Roland Turner (Coens’ regular John Goodman) with his James Dean wannabe factotum Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund).
As gorgeously filmed by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, the somewhat absurd on-the-road experience along with other incidents (and images) in Davis’s terrible week are heavily inspired by the late Dave Van Ronk, described in his entertaining memoir The Mayor of MacDougal Street, as told to Elijah Wald, a consultant on the film. So it’s a head-scratcher why it isn’t specified that Davis is inspired by an actual person when, at the New York Film Festival press conference, the filmmakers said they always had Van Ronk in mind and Van Ronk sings over the closing credits.
This season’s Philomena and Saving Mr. Banks didn’t change real-life names yet veer much further from their sources. But there’s plenty of documentaries out about this scene (such as Laura Archibald’s Greenwich Village: Music That Defined a Generation last year), so the Coens take advantage of turning Van Ronk into a fictional character who doesn’t follow the redemptive success playbook of Ray or Walk the Line, or even in how Bix Beiderbecke became Michael Curtiz’s fictional Young Man with A Horn (1950). This fictionalized, unsuccessful musician is sure to be as much a classic.