Reliving the ‘60s: My review of Inside Llewyn Davis

Yes, I was there in the ‘60s, but not in Greenwich Village where Dave Van Ronk and Bob Dylan hung out and where the new film Inside Llewyn Davis is set. I spent the ‘60s in northwestern Wisconsin in River Falls, a small college town that I now think of as Brigadoon, a magical place. Well, at least a very good place to live and raise two small boys. We lived in a series of comfy old houses with big back yards on tree-lined streets with names like Cedar, Maple and Main.

We didn’t go to the Gaslight Café to hear up-and-coming musicians. But we did go to a local coffee house to listen to folk music and poetry by students, faculty and occasionally visiting talent. And there was always some kind of musical or theatrical event to attend on campus. Eugene McCarthy campaigned in River Falls in 1968 and we went to the parade on Main Street to cheer him on. What a lovely place to live.

You can’t help but think of life in the ‘60s as you watch Inside Llewyn Davis, the new Coen brothers film that you could only have missed hearing about if you have been in a cocoon for the last month. But for once, the hype is worth it. It’s a smart film, mostly historically accurate, and the music is worth the price of the ticket. Even though I generally prefer music that rocks, these are lyrical, traditional folk ballads (with one exception) arranged for today, with T Bone Burnett as the musical czar and Marcus Mumford (of the eponymous Mumford & Sons) as co-producer. Best of all, you hear full-length songs in the film, not 30-second samples.

The Llewyn Davis character is patterned after a folk singer of the time, Dave Van Ronk, whose memoir, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, was one of the Coen brothers’ historical sources. Van Ronk’s second album, Inside Dave Van Ronk, provided the cover art idea for the movie version of the Llewyn Davis album, Inside Llewyn Davis. And the poster for the new film is a dead ringer for the cover of Bob Dylan’s album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (with a cat instead of Suze Rotolo). The similarities are striking in both cases. My friend June Skinner Sawyers writes about the Freewheelin’ photo shoot in her book, Bob Dylan: New York (2011, Roaring Forties Press).

The film shows us the quest of Llewyn Davis (played by the very talented Oscar Isaac), a folksinger who wants to perform authentic folk music, in the era before the genre became commercial. He goes everywhere, with his beatup guitar case, a knapsack, and usually a cat over his arm. The cat, who acts like cats do, is also on a quest—to escape from Llewyn’s grasp and, maybe, to get home. The fact that the cat is named Ulysses, which we don’t find out until the end of the film, adds to its charm. We could analyze Llewyn’s quest as that of a modern-day Ulysses or Odysseus, but we don’t need to do that to enjoy his quest for someone to listen to his music and pay him for performing. He just wants to make his living as a musician.

His journey includes performing at the Gaslight, a “basket club” where performers’ remuneration is in the tip basket; trying to get his manager to sell his solo album; and taking a road trip to Chicago, which is a short film in itself. He finds his way to the Gate of Horn on Dearborn Street to audition for its owner, Bud Grossman (played by Murray Abraham), who is known to be an effective manager of musicians. In an empty club, in sunlight and shadow, Llewyn plays an old folk song, “The Death of Queen Jane” for Grossman. Unfortunately, it’s the wrong song. Grossman says “I don’t see much money in that,” when Llewyn finishes.

The Grossman character, like most of the characters in the film, is patterned after a real person. Albert Grossman, the man who ran the Gate of Horn, managed Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, and created and managed the trio Peter, Paul and Mary. At the end of Llewyn’s audition, Grossman tells him he’s forming a trio of two guys and a girl singer. “If you trim that beard to a goatee and stay out of the sun, we could use you,” Grossman tells Llewyn. Llewyn declines the opportunity.

There are many parallels to the quest of other young musicians to gain an audience. Bruce Springsteen spent years playing in small bands and performing on his own before finally getting to audition for John Hammond, the legendary Columbia record producer and civil rights activist. Bruce’s manager, Mike Appel, pressured Hammond to audition Bruce in May 1972 and the result, after Bruce played for Hammond, was a 10-record contract with Columbia. Bruce was lucky; he had a manager who fought for him (even though he and Appel later split in a contentious contract dispute). If he hadn’t, he might have ended up like Llewyn Davis, wandering the streets of New York with his guitar and playing for tips.

In a 1998 interview with MOJO magazine, Springsteen remembered the session: “It was a big, big day for me… I was 22 and came up on the bus with an acoustic guitar with no case… I was embarrassed carrying it around the city. I walked into his office and had the audition, and I played a couple of songs and [Hammond] said, ‘You’ve got to be on Columbia Records.’ – See more here. The audition tracklist and the tapes themselves were part of the Bruce Springsteen exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum that ran from April 2009 thru February 2011. (I visited three times.)

At the very end of the film, after Llewyn leaves the stage at the Gaslight, we see the next performer in shadowy profile—a young Bob Dylan; the song playing is Dylan’s unreleased version of “Farewell” aka “Fare Thee Well,” an 18th century English song that’s played several times in the film. Playing over the credits is Dave Van Ronk himself, singing “Green Green Rocky Road,” which Llewyn sings in the film.

The Coen brothers have created a film that immerses you in 1961 Greenwich Village with their obsessive attention to detail. It’s a good film to just enjoy; you’re sure to find some elements that apply to your life, even though you may disagree with others. There have been many reviews of this film and interviews with its star. Plus Showtime is running an excellent concert film (Another Day, Another Time: Celebrating the Music of “Inside llewyn Davis”) with music and performers from the film plus other related music and performers. My favorites in this splendid cast are the Punch Brothers, fronted by Chris Thile, the mandolinist and composer who won a MacArthur Fellowship (the Genius Grant) last year. I’ve had discussions, arguments even, with friends who want to overanalyze the Llewyn Davis character. Or the cat. Don’t do it. As Steve Prokopy says at the end of his Gapers Block review:

“The movie manages to be rough around the edges, yet poignantly elegant. Many audience members may not be familiar with Isaac’s work: he’s been around for a few years in supporting roles. But he rises to the importance of this role, in a way that Davis himself probably never could have. The parallels between the character and the person playing him are not lost, but one is rising to the occasion while the other is frequently buckling under pressure. Inside Llewyn Davis is easily one of the best films you’ll see this year, but it may be difficult to pinpoint why. So don’t try — just let the music, the humor, the look and feel of it all wash over you and take you to a place that feels like another world.

I couldn’t agree more.