Greenwich Village, New York, 1961. Imagine the excitement of being at the heart of New York’s folk revolution as it was about to kick off in the early 1960s.
The times they were a-changing and popular music was undergoing a huge cultural shift. A young Bob Dylan was about to burst onto the Greenwich Village scene with songs that would change music forever.
Inside Llewyn Davis, the new Coen Brothers film, takes us back to the earliest days of that musical revolution but instead of unfolding the story through the eyes of a star-in-waiting like Dylan, it follows a different path.
The film tells the story of a week in the life of a young singer songwriter called Llewyn Davis (played by Oscar Isaac) as he tries to navigate the Greenwich Village folk scene and carve a niche for himself.
His path to fame and fortune is not an easy one – frequently his hopes and dreams are scuppered along the way by a variety of obstacles, some self-inflicted.
I’m a huge fan of the Coens so this is a cinematic treat, reminiscent of two earlier films, Barton Fink (with its struggling screen writer) and O Brother Where Art Thou (another personal journey).
Inside Greenwich Village
The Coen Brothers are brilliant at capturing a sense of time and place, something they’ve done in many films, from Raising Arizona and Fargo to Barton Fink and True Grit.
Again, they evoke the period and feel of the early Greenwich Village folk scene completely with the distinctive style we’ve come to expect from two of Hollywood’s most visual directors.
They take us right inside the small, crowded underground bars where the beat generation drinks, smokes and extols the virtues of the new folk artists.
But the Greenwich Village shown in the film is the not the successful 1960s scene which produced Peter, Paul and Mary, The Clancy Brothers and Bob Dylan.
This is the story of 1961 when folk music was niche, before the big money and record companies arrived to snap up the artists that would cross-over from folk to ‘pop’ and ‘folk rock’.
Back in those days, folk was still the preserve of a coterie of musicians with a shared devotion to authentic, honest music with a deep-rooted history in rural America.
It was old time American music mixed with the spirit of Woody Guthrie, tangled up with Delta blues and Appalachian ballads.
The film is very loosely based on musician Dave Van Ronk’s memoir, The Mayor of MacDougal Street – and the Coens have used some of his stories and songs to create the film’s authentic feel.
Several locations are drawn from real places too. Gerde’s Folk City is the model for the music bar, a venue where Dylan got his big break, a piece of musical history alluded to in a clever aside in the film.
It’s an ingenious idea to follow Llewyn Davis, a young singer at the crossroads, because it allows the Coen Brothers to dig deep and follow the musician’s adventures, both musical and personal.
As an artist, Llewyn could be on the cusp of great things but he’s plagued by uncertainty, the death of his singing partner, and a tangled web of relationships.
He was once half of the musical duo Timlin and Davis, something he’s never really got over. It doesn’t help that everybody constantly tells him how much they miss Mike Timlin.
Llewyn’s life seems to be on a crash course to mediocrity and disillusionment, as if he’s lost the road map to where he wants to be.
He’s clearly talented but there’s something about Llewyn that isn’t quite right. If he could only hit the right note with a record company or management, perhaps his life would sort itself out?
It’s clear that some of the problems Llewyn encounters are of his own making – he’s very good at sabotaging friendships, leaving the emotional wreckage in his wake.
His personal relationships are complicated and fractured. Llewyn spends his life bumming around and staying at friends’ houses, with no real home of his own.
He’s a rootless drifter, a commitment-phobe and an outsider. Depending on how you see him – he’s a ‘screw-up’ or a talented artist.
A secret extra-marital affair with his best friend’s wife Jean (Carey Mulligan) lies in tatters with the revelation early in the film that he’s got her pregnant.
Jean dubs him “King Midas’ idiot brother” because “everything he touches turns to shit”, a recurring theme in the film.
His sister chastises him for being self-centred and never thinking about the future. Llewyn’s relationship with his ailing father also seems to have hit a brick wall with an almost complete lack of communication between the two men.
The only creature that appears to find Llewyn dependable is a ginger cat who escapes from his neighbour’s home and insists on tagging along with the musician.
Llewyn shirks any form of responsibility so finds the cat something of a millstone around his neck, despite his best attempts to look after it.
The cat – called Ulysees (another Coens’ in-joke) – gives a star turn to rival Uggie in The Artist, but I don’t go as far as some critics who are theorising that ‘Llewyn is the cat’ and they have mirrored lives!
But the musician can’t even get the relationship with the moggie right, resulting in a hilarious scene when he tries to substitute a similar looking feline for the real cat when it goes missing.
It’s great credit to the Coens that they make what could be a very unsympathetic character into an interesting figure who we care about, despite his obvious flaws and irritating behaviour.
There’s something about Llewyn that makes you want him to be successful, even if he’s intent on doing things his own crazy way. Perhaps we admire him for that and his failure to compromise?
And there’s something touching about how Llewyn and his mates are so passionate about keeping their music authentic and honest.
Llewyn’s story unfolds like many aspiring musicians I’ve known, in what I call the ‘seven stages’ of their journey – promise, enthusiasm, hope, disappointment, frustration, anger, and denial.
Only a few lucky or supremely talented hopefuls go on to enjoy success, career satisfaction and fulfilment.
Man on a mission
It’s a fascinating story that carries us along in its sway.
In some ways, Llewyn Davis is an anti-hero in an anti-road movie. We follow the protagonist’s journey but he doesn’t really go anywhere… and he’s not much of a role model either.
At one point, he takes an ill-advised road trip to Chicago with a jazz hipster (John Goodman) and his strange driver, Johnny Five, which is supposed to promote his reputation as a budding singer songwriter.
But the odysessy fails despite his best efforts.
An audition for music mogul, Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham), is a disaster when Llewyn chooses to play the weird and morbid ‘The Death of Queen Jane’ rather than something popular and commercial.
A poster on an alleyway wall advertises the feature film “The Incredible Journey”, a wry joke because Llewyn’s own trip across country from New York to the Windy City proves to be less than fantastic.
But Llewyn does demonstrate his tenacity up to a point, by returning to New York to have another stab at his career. But there’s always the feeling that he’s going to shoot himself in the foot at any moment.
Back in New York, he embarks on a few music sessions with his best friend Jim, played by Justin Timberlake in a subtle performance that provides a great foil to Isaacs’ brasher character.
A hilarious session playing a novelty song called “Please Mr Kennedy” with Jim and another musician provides a nice musical and comedic moment.
Ultimately, the film meanders along, leading some audiences to call it boring and directionless. But that’s a bit like life itself – you’re never quite sure which direction it’s going to take you in.
Recreating the 1960s scene
I got a real sense of the spirit of the New York music scene in the early 60s from the Coens Brothers’ film.
Musical advisors T Bone Burnett and Marcus Mumford (Mr Mulligan of Mumford and Sons) have captured the essence of the early 1960s with their adaptations of original songs and arrangements.
The Coens also recreate the atmosphere of the Gaslight Cafe, one of the venues which provided a focal point for the bourgeoning folk movement in the early 1960s.
I really enjoyed the music and there’s a brilliant soundtrack CD that accompanies the film with some great musical interpretations.
As ever with Coen Bros films, the cinematography looks great with wonderful imagery and visual style, courtesy of Bruno Delbonnel (remember his stunning work on Amelie?).
Inside Llewyn Davis feels bleak and melancholic, but the Coens’ dark humour lifts if from being maudlin, overly dark or depressing.
Throughout the film there are numerous Coen Brothers’ bizarre touches and strange moments with odd-ball characters who fill the screen in a range of cameos.
This is a smart and enjoyably sombre piece of film making from the Coens, two master craftsmen, who know how to tell a story with a few twists and unexpected turns.
Perhaps Llewyn is in the wrong place at the wrong time for his musical career – or perhaps he’s doomed to never quite lift off. But that’s kind of the point…
Either way, it’s a great film with some brilliant perfromances, cracking dialogue and best of all… a top cat!
Where to find Inside Llewyn Davis…
Inside Llewyn Davis is on general release from Friday, 24 January 2014 in the UK.
The soundtrack to the film is available on Nonesuch Records and includes my favourite tracks, ‘Fare Thee Well’ recorded by Oscar Isaac and Marcus Mumford, and ‘Please Mr Kennedy’ featuring Justin Timberlake.
Why not look out the locations featured in the film if you’re planning a trip to the Big Apple?
New York sites featured in the movie include Washington Square Park, Cafe Reggio (Manhattan), Christopher Street and Caffe Vivaldi (both Greenwich Village).
Cafe Reggio can be found on Macdougal Street south of West Third Street in Greenwich Village.
Many of the West Village locations in the film were actually shot in the East Village where the architecture is much as it was back in the early 1960s.
422 East 9th Street doubles as the exterior of the Gaslight Cafe folk venue in the film.
Images: Photos are copyright and courtesy of Studio Canal.