By David Famularo April 2014
It’s interesting to see reviewers struggle with the point behind Inside Llewyn Davis when the biggest clue is in the title itself ie “inside”.
All the reviews and articles I have read, have been distracted by the setting – New York’s folk music scene in 1962. Inevitably, Llewyn Davis’ character has been compared to real life players in the music scene, most notably Dave Van Ronk – “the mayor of MacDougal Street” upon whose autobiography the script is said to draw heavily (I’ve never read the book myself).
The January issue of Uncut music magazine quotes two of Van Ronk’s friends who enjoyed the film but remembered the time as being much more fun. That would be undoubtedly true, but the character of Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a cipher for the everyman musician/artist who has existed in the shadows just outside the limelight of fame.
In Shakespearian times, I recall from school, plays were classified as either a “tragedy” or a “comedy”, although the comedies could be pretty dark by our standards. Inside Llewyn Davis is a comedy, but a black one, which ironically makes it all the funnier, because the cards dealt to Llewyn Davis by fate and his own thoughts and actions are so familiar.
Comparisons have also been made between Inside Llewyn Davis and directors Joel and Ethan Coen’s 2000 film “Oh Brother Where Art Thou” which likewise chooses a moment in American cultural and musical history (1930s, country/folk) and touches upon the whims of fate as played out in an updated version of Homer’s tale of the ancient Greek traveller Ulysses.
But they are quite different films. While the characters in Oh Brother are exaggerated and quirky, Llewyn Davis is played more or less straight. But his character and dilemma is just as universal – the artist who fails to be appreciated.
There is never any question that Llewyn Davis has a talent, but this is unrecognised, misunderstood, and metaphorically and physically crapped on by his family, friends, audience, and fate itself.
Llewyn Davis doesn’t help his cause when his frustration expresses itself as anger. But his is also sensitive, intelligent, poetic and analytical, his psyche beautifully expressed in non-verbal moments within the film – most notably his relationship with the stray cat he picks up.
At times the film reminds me of Fellini’s Roma with its impressionistic moments full of meaning such as when Llewyn Davis hits an animal late at night, invoking a moment of sympathy and empathy.
Because he is always having to deal with the lack of appreciation of his talent, especially as he witness others he feels are lacking the same depth get ahead, Llewyn Davis is constantly having to battle his own cynicism, the very antithesis of the optimistic idealism we associate with the folk scene.
And here-in lies one of the difficult balancing acts that the directors had to walk. The late 1950s/early 1960s folk movement has been so piteously lampooned that even the Coens struggle to bring the needed amount of gravitas to the music. But by coming close spoofing the music themselves, they risk undermining Llewyn Davis’ own belief in the music, and hence the value and meaning of his own psychological journey.
Many reviewers have seen Llewyn Davis character as disparaging the folk music scene. But Llewyn Davis believes in the music and is a competent musician in that genre. Otherwise he would not be frustrated by the calibre of the musicians who enjoy success.
The soundtrack to Inside Llewyn Davis will never enjoy the success of Oh Brother. Roots music was ripe for rediscovery. Oh Brother lit the match, and helped trigger the current explosion of “Americana”.
Folk music, in contrast, is something of an anomaly. In the 1950s it offered a mostly white alternative to mainstream white society, highly regarding the black and white roots music of America. But folk music itself, is a relatively new musical genre that hardly predates Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger.
Which is not to underestimate its importance. Many of America’s most significant rock figures of the 1960s grew up listening to rock & roll but finished their musical training in the folk music scene. It was there that they fine tuned their story telling though the importance that folk music has always placed on lyrics.
Inside Llewyn Davis is a beautifully painted canvas of life in America in 1962, inhabited by exquisitely portrayed lost souls of the American landscape. If there is any painter the Coen brothers have an empathy with (and I would be surprised if they have borrowed from) is Edward Hopper, films like Inside Llewyn Davis and 2001’s The Man Who Wasn’t There containing much of the same spiritual alienation from the American Dream.
As for who Llewyn Davis bears the most similarity to, two obvious examples would be British early 1970s singer/songwriter Nick Drake who died young and unrecognised, and Mexican American Sixto Rodriguez who has only recently been rediscovered. I’m more inclined to relate him to Phil Ochs who while a leading figure in the Greenwich Village folk scene, was always too worldly, political and cynical to enjoy the success of the more other worldly Bob Dylan.
But really, Llewyn Davis meets himself most directly in another character in the film, ailing, loud and over-the-hill jazz saxophonist Roland Turner, who had had only the briefest encounter with success, a road sign for his own likely future as a musician.
Dylan does make an appearance in the last moments of Inside Llewyn Davis, to underline that essential mystery – why fate anoints one talent but passes another by.
NB Since writing this review, I’ve been notified of this excellent review on the meaning of the cat here