The Coens Go Folk Themselves

'Inside Llewyn Davis' is a meditation on what it takes to succeed as an artist and as a human being, which do not always go hand in hand

I was raised on Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. Also, Jean Ritchie and Burl Ives.

“Folk singer” and “folk music” were revered terms in our household when I was a kid. The folk revival of the late '50s and early '60s, just before the Beatles came along and changed everything, was my initial indoctrination into popular music.

I remember when my father came home with Joan Baez’s eponymous first album a year or two after its release in 1960 and Dylan’s second album, “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan,” in 1963. The cover of the Baez album was stark black and white, like the negative of a photo, with her name in bold red, and the Dylan album had a photo of Dylan, dressed in a suede jacket and jeans, walking along a Greenwich Village street arm in arm with his then girlfriend Suze Rotolo.

While sitting cross-legged on the floor, I would hunch up against the speaker of the single unit, big cabinet record player that we had back then, playing those LPs again and again. I’d study the album covers and memorize every detail of the way the singers looked and wonder about their lives. I’d envision myself doing the same one day, warbling away up all alone in front of a microphone before a reverent crowd. (I didn’t let the fact that, even then, I couldn’t carry a tune to save my life interfere with my daydreams.)

I was reminded of all that while watching “Inside Llewyn Davis,” the resonant new film from brothers Ethan and Joel Coen (“No Country for Old Men”), who share writing and directing credits.

“Inside Llewyn Davis” is about a struggling folk singer, the titular Llewyn Davis (brilliantly portrayed by sad-eyed Oscar Isaac), who’s trying to launch a solo career after the death of his former musical partner. He’s living hand to mouth in Greenwich Village in 1961, mooching off friends, sleeping on their couches and cadging meals and cash.

As the film follows Davis’ increasingly desperate meanderings over the course of several days — moviegoers who want a clear-cut plot and ascending, graphable story line should go elsewhere — it eventually becomes clear that while Davis has the talent and even drive to succeed, he’s probably not going to make it. Time after time, whether due to bad luck or lack of character, Davis misses an obvious opportunity for success when it is offered to him, makes the wrong moral choice, behaves badly and otherwise undercuts himself and his chances.

“Llewyn Davis” gets the period details and the musical ferment of the time exactly right. While the folk movement may have started out as an attempt to recapture and reconnect with traditional songs, it was moving into the protest era and was about to become the next big thing. Some practitioners, like Bob Dylan, were going to capitalize on that and rise to superstardom and some, the Llewyn Davises of the world, were going to fall behind.

Essentially, the movie is a meditation on what it takes to succeed as an artist and as a human being, which do not always go hand-in-hand.

But saying that makes the film sound way more serious than it plays. “Llewyn Davis” is often desperately funny, though — as with most Coen brothers films — the emphasis is often on the “desperately.”

There’s also, for folkies old and new, a heck of a pleasurable soundtrack. Isaac can sing and he does it well and often here, as do several of his costars (who include Justin Timberlake, John Goodman and Carey Mulligan). The movie’s soundtrack is likely to do for '60s folk music what the Coens’ “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (2000) did for roots Americana music.

We may be listening to these old songs via iTunes or Spotify this time around but “Llewyn Davis” is a potent reminder that the music you grew up with stays with you always.


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