There’s been a lot of buzz about Inside Llewyn Davis, the new film from Joel and Ethan Coen, which is VERY loosed based on Dave Van Ronk’s memoir, The Mayor of MacDougall Street. Some of my folkie friends had very negative reactions to it, because they were good friends of Van Ronk’s. I knew him, too, though not as well, so I figured I should try to watch the movie as a Coen Brothers creation, not a biography of Van Ronk. Even though it’s gotten a lot of positive reviews, I had a lot of problems with it myself.
OK, let’s assume it’s a fable. Llewyn Davis isn’t supposed to BE Dave Van Ronk; his story is just meant to be inspired by the “great folk scare” of the early ‘60s. But it gets confusing. The Coens capture the look and feel of 1961 Greenwich Village, but not the sense of community. There are characters obviously based on real people, like Tom Paxton, the Clancy Brothers, Jim and Jean (nicely played by Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan), and Albert Grossman (played by F. Murray Abraham). There are real clubs like The Gaslight and The Gate of Horn in Chicago. There are real situations, like people crashing on couches. But there’s not much of a story and no central character to care about.
They grab some facts from Van Ronk’s life – like his roots in the outer boroughs, his stint as a merchant seaman, his taste in folk songs – but they don’t show whether Llewyn Davis really has any talent. Oscar Isaac, who plays Llewyn, is a fine actor and a decent musician, but as the Grossman character says, “I don’t see any money there.” He offers Llewyn a chance to be part of a trio with another guy and a girl, which he turns down – just as Van Ronk turned down the real Albert Grossman’s offer to be part of Peter Paul & Mary.
Basically, Llewyn is a loser, an arrogant s.o.b. with no social skills and no forwarding address. Now, many of the Coens’ characters are losers, but they keep you interested. George Clooney & Co. in O Brother, Where Art Thou? were losers, but they were fun. John Goodman enters the movie halfway through as a mysterious, pompous jazzman, and you’d think he’d bring some humor, but it never develops.
At the very end Llewyn leaves the Gaslight as a character clearly modeled on Bob Dylan is performing. If this is supposed to foreshadow the future of folk music – and we know it is – there’s no recognition of that from Llewyn. He goes into an alley and gets beat up. What’s the point – that his career is a dead end street? – where’s the redemption?
That being said, there is some value to having Van Ronk’s music back in the spotlight, though I can’t see this sparking another folk revival. The soundtrack album does offer some pleasures. It includes Van Ronk’s version of “Green Rocky Road,” and along with performances from the film, has some studio collaborations, like Marcus Mumford teaming up with Oscar Isaac on “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song).” And you can hear more of those on the Showtime special, Another Day, Another Time: Celebrating the Music of Inside Llewyn Davis, recorded in concert at Town Hall.