A film about a struggling artist could be many things: arty, pretentious, too ambitious and above all unfocused. For all its many cinematographic achievements and clever performances, the absurdity of I’m Not There (Todd Haynes, 2007) fell to the weight of its lofty hopes. That film gave a highly-stylized rumination of the six lives, or characters, Bob Dylan sought to live, within his own dreams.
While telling the tale of an at-times haphazard artist in search of his own destiny, Inside Llewyn Davis, is in contrast, a deeply focused character study. The film is a largely rueful slice of life picture, which remains authentic to its time and place but also true in its depiction of its flawed but deeply human protagonist.
Inside Llewyn Davis zeroes in on Greenwich Village in 1961, just as the bohemian scene was shifting from beat poets into folk. The film “plays out in New York, and all over the village, cafes are sprouting folk singers, chins are sprouting beards, and Llewyn Davis… is doing his damnedest not to sell out, while stifling his howls as contemporaries sign up all around him.
“Crashing on couches, mooching meals, railing against the gaudy temptation of the music business, [Llewyn Davis] is not just an also-ran, but an ingrate.” (Shone)
Llewyn Davis is a character deeply resentful to those who do not share his view that music must maintain traditional roots.
One of Llewyn Davis’ many faults is that he never accepts his responsibilities; he is a man who does not look forward, nor is held accountable for his foolish actions. This is evidenced by not having a stable place to live or by, perhaps getting multiple girlfriends knocked up —perhaps unwittingly.
Llewyn Davis is loosely based on folk balladeer Dave Van Ronk, the gruff yet tender-playing folk singer who drew praise by his contemporaries as a true craftsman and in contrast to Oscar Isaac’s portrayal, a man known for his generosity of spirit.
“Born in Brooklyn in 1936, Van Ronk moved to the Village as a teenager and never left. Over five decades, he recorded scores of albums that blended blues, jazz, jug-band stomping, and sea chanteys,” (Browne).
“[Van Ronk] was already a myth,” Joan Baez said.
“He had terrible teeth, but he had the most astonishing pitch, sweet little notes amidst the growly ones. I knew thousands of people who sang the blues, but there weren’t many who did it well. He was the closest living offshoot of Leadbelly that I could get to see,” she added (Browne).
“He was passionate and stinging… sang like a soldier of fortune and sounded like he paid the price. . . I loved his style,” added Bob Dylan in his 2004 memoir, Chronicles Volume 1. (as cited in Browne).
Many of the standout tracks Llewyn Davis performs were indeed first played by Van Ronk during his heyday in Greenwich Village’s coffeehouses, including at the Gaslight. These included songs like ‘Oh Hang Me, Oh Hang Me’ as well as ‘Green Green Rocky Road.’
Unlike Van Ronk, Llewyn Davis is certainly a misanthrope, and somewhat of a mooch and perpetual vagabond. Van Ronk, according to friends, had been known to accommodate his buddies.
“I picked up [the song ‘Green, Green Rocky Road] working on a club on MacDougal St during the earliest phase of the coffeehouses, the great American folk scare,” Van Ronk recalled in a 1980 interview.
“Headliners, at that time, were poets, beat poets. I was working with a guy named Bob Kaufman, one of the best of the poets of that period and I was sitting with him at the performer’s table on the stage… He whispered in my ear, ‘guaranteed to make any singer’s blood run cold… boy have I a song for you,” said Van Ronk.
These reflections are revealing, because they show how the Beat poetry scene remained relevant as the folk era began.
The beat spirit, which coalesces deep-seated despondency with a knowing-ness of the pain of human experience lies within Llewyn Davis. He is a character who believes art, as well as life is meant to be an arduous struggle brought on by the excesses of the human experience.
“Tourists thought of folksingers and beat poets as part of the same crazy culture but when Van Ronk talk about the people his crowd hated, the beatniks were only a few steps behind the suburban squares and the dislike was mutual” (Wald).
“[Inside Llewyn Davis] is… universal… about a musician, an artist, and the real challenges he faces, we face,” said the film’s Music Producer T-Bone Burnett. “The idea was to go backward and forward at the same time. That’s the great trick. That’s what Dylan did. He was able to go backward and forward.”
Davis’ ‘hangup’ is that he “can just go backward. The the idea was to go backward and forward… the traditionalist who wants to preserve that… then there’s the traditionalist like Dylan who doesn’t just want to keep the tradition, but also wants to re-frame it for a different time so it has new meaning, so that the original is translated into a new environment,” Burnett added (‘DP/30 ).
Midway through Inside Llewyn Davis, the protagonist is indeed ‘on the road’ with both a drifter and a has-been jazz musician turned junkie played by John Goodman. Davis is given a ride to Chicago for what could be his first big break as a musical artist, and is joined by two Beat-inspired characters.
Llewyn Davis is indeed at the crossroads. Unfortunately, these characters – who could perhaps understand his predicament – are cruel to Davis, and certainly revile the purity of folk music.
Goodman’s Roland Turner derisively asks Davis, “What is that a part of your act?” referring to a cat – perhaps the film’s motif to symbolize endurance in a harsh environment – sits on Davis’ lap.
The Coens purposefully depict Turner’s chauffeur as being a closet beat poet who later recites free verse while the three men sit in a truck-stop restaurant.
Before long, Johnny Five is arrested after Turner overdoses in a bathroom stall.
Llewyn Davis is then left alone, and is left at both his professional and spiritual crossroads. Is it all worth it?
“The beats like cool jazz, bebop and hard drugs and hated folk music, which to them was all these fresh-faced kids sitting around on the floor and singing songs of the oppressed masses” (Wald).
“To me, [The Coen Brothers] are the Dylans of movies,” T-Bone Burnett said in a recent interview.
“They work in a similar way. They’ve broken the thing open in a similar way. They came in a medium that was static at the time, and for very little money, blew it completely open… Coenesque is an actual word. They came in a medium that was static at the time, and for very little money, blew it completely open…” (DP/30 Interview).
Inside Llewyn Davis remains a simple and poignant tale of a struggling artist who refuses to compromise, so long as traditional music remains intact. Human interactions, sadly fall by the wayside.
While a consummate traditionalist folk singer like Llewyn Davis may be deeply flawed on a human level, it is within his struggle in search of his craft, which makes him the consummate artist.
While Inside Llewyn Davis tells the travails and triumphs of a folk singer, the ebb and flow of his life reflects that of a Beat, weighed down by the absurdities and unpredictability of human experience.
I’m Not There. Todd Haynes. Paramount Pictures/The Weinstein Co., 2007. Film.
Inside Llewyn Davis. Joel Coen and Ethan Coen. CBS Films/Studio Canal, 2013. Film.
Browne, Dave. “Meet The Folk Singer Who Inspired Dave Van Ronk.” Rolling Stone. Rolling Stone, December 2, 2013. Web. Jan. 7, 2014.
Shone, Tom. “Inside Llewyn Davis: A Masterpiece ‘Anti-Musical’ From The Coen Brothers.” The Guardian. The Guardian, December 5, 2013. Web. Jan 7, 2014.
Wald, Elijah. “Before The Flood: Llewyn Davis, Dave Van Ronk and the Village Folk Scene of 1961.” Inside Llewyn Davis. np, nd. Web. Jan 7, 2014.
DP/30. “DP/30: T-Bone Burnett Gets Inside Llewyn Davis.” Video. YouTube YouTube, Nov. 23, 2013. Web. Jan. 7, 2014.
GtrWorkShp. “The Late, Great Dave Van Ronk: ‘Green Green Rocky Road’.” Video. YouTube. YouTube, Apr 14, 2008. Web. Jan. 7, 2014.