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Saturday, May 10, 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

The Coen brothers are just merciless when they write their own material.  Llewyn Davis is a folk singer in the early 1960's.  He is playing at The Gaslight where the folk revival is on the verge of occurring, but it is very clear early on that the revival wave is not going to carry him to stardom.  Not if he can help it anyway.  Llewyn is intent on spreading the torture and misery that resides in him all over everyone around him.  Here is how the story of the movie's inception goes: “OK, suppose Dave Van Ronk gets beat up outside of Gerde’s Folk City.  That is the beginning of the movie.” So Joel Coen once said to his brother Ethan.  Maybe that is why he gets first billing here. Somewhere between idea and execution, Dave Van Ronk became the fictional Llewyn Davis, Folk City became another real-life Greenwich Village venue, and hence we have one of the brother's lesser popular but no lesser loved movies.

Elijah Wald, who co-wrote the book that this is based on, said of the movie’s lead, played by Oscar Isaac, “The character is is not Dave at all but the music is.” Like Llewyn Davis, Van Ronk was a folk and blues singer from the outer boroughs who made his living playing coffeehouses in the Village after a brief stint in the merchant marine. Like Llewyn, he considered abandoning music and returning to the sea, only to realize he had lost his seaman’s papers. Early in his career Van Ronk hitched to Chicago to audition for Albert Grossman at the Gate of Horn, a folk mecca, under the false impression that Grossman had received a demo of his (Llewyn turns Grossman down when he suggests he join a trio he is putting together--which becomes known as Peter, Paul, and Mary).
That event is the basis for a key sequence in Inside Llewyn Davis. Another scene, where Davis goes to his label and asks for money is right out of a passage from The Mayor of MacDougal Street. Llewyn’s label, Legacy, is a nod to Van Ronk’s first, Folkways, a small outfit run at the time by Moses Asch.  But in the end it is not that Llewyn can't catch a break, it is that he isn't open to the breaks that he is offered.  His sense of personal integrity is so great that he can't work with it and he can't work around it.  Perhaps a metaphor for the sorts of pitfalls that the brothers Coen encountered themselves when first starting out.  They certainly have retained their quirky ways in film and managed to make both a living and a following for themselves.

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