“If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song.”
In the opening moments of the Coen brothers’ new film, Inside Llewyn Davis, we see a man sitting upon a stool on the spotlit stage of the Gaslight Cafe in New York City, 1961, strumming his guitar and singing an old folk song into the microphone while a small crowd of regulars listens on.
That man is Llewyn Davis.
Everyone knows someone like Llewyn, a person with a big heart that’s been affected by various events, circumstances, and obstacles; who sometimes, and probably more often than not, brings his issues upon himself; who struggles to figure out exactly where his passion lay or what he wants to do with his life; who is trying to find a way to get from one day to the next without being nagged or lectured by his friends and family; whose concerns aren’t those of the future, but those of the present.
It’s this instant comfort with the character that allows Joel and Ethan Coen, co-writers and co-directors of the film, to connect viewers to their main character — whom they’ve based in part on folk musician Dave Van Ronk — and make us interested in his life. The Coens’ chief concern here isn’t plot or a traditionally structured narrative, but rather Llewyn Davis himself, both the musician and the man.
The film treats us to a one-week glimpse inside the life of Davis (Oscar Isaac) as he gigs around New York City, couch surfs between friends’ apartments, bums cigarettes off friends and strangers alike, makes acquaintance with a stray cat, and tries to succeed in the music business despite the harsh reality that folk music just isn’t where mass public interest rests.
But still, folk music is just about all Davis has left. He once performed as part of a duo until his partner, Mike Timlin, chose to end his own life and brought an abrupt end to that period of Llewyn’s. Now, his partner gone, Llewyn is left to navigate the folk music scene on his own, playing clubs solo while the memory of Timlin remains firm in his head and heavy in his heart.
Davis, without a place of his own or even a decent coat to keep him warm in the New York City winter, moves from couch to couch, finding shelter with the likes of the Gorfeins, academics on the Upper West Side; Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Jean Berkey (Carey Mulligan), musician friends of Davis; and Al Cody (Adam Driver), another folk singer Davis meets early in the film.
Over the course of the week, Davis tries to fix the situation between him and Jean; befriends and moves about Greenwich Village with his feline friend; records a one-off hit with Jim and Al to make a quick buck; travels to Chicago with two strangers to play for Bud Grossman, a major player in the 1960s music scene; and returns to New York with next-to-nothing concrete figured out, save for one thing: no matter how hard things get or how many mistakes he makes, he loves music. He lives for music.
Oscar Isaac is wonderful in the lead role, with his acting, singing, and instrumental abilities on full display, and he knocks it out of the park. His character is probably what you would consider the protagonist, though that’s certainly not to say he is intended to be an entirely likable character. In fact, sometimes Davis is flat-out disagreeable in his actions, but the Coens never try to hide that from us. The directing duo lay bare Davis, imperfections and all. We aren’t told to like him or to dislike him, but rather to simply look upon this short period in his life for what it is.
Mulligan is terrific, too, in a substantial supporting role, able to display a vast array of emotions over the course of the film. She can be harsh one moment and tender the next, whichever the scene calls for, and Mulligan hits both ends of the spectrum and everywhere in between with seemingly little effort.
Timberlake, Driver, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund, and a host of others serve their purpose in supporting roles, with Goodman receiving the bulk of critical acknowledgement. His role is a small one, but it provides a lot of entertainment and laughs in an otherwise small drama.
The star of the film, though, isn’t Davis or Mulligan or any of the other cast members. Heck, it’s not even the writing, though the Coens deliver in that department, as always. Rather, the true star of the film is the music, almost all of it played and sung live on-screen, produced with the help of T-Bone Burnett, who famously collaborated with the Coens on O Brother Where Art Thou?, and Marcus Mumford, of English folk-rock band Mumford & Sons.
Most of the film’s greatest moments involve its key characters playing music, such as one scene where Llewyn is asked by the Gorfeins to play for them at a small dinner with friends. An unbelievable amount of weight and emotion are mined from that scene alone, weight and emotion that would otherwise be lacking if not for the song Davis plays for them.
Another scene sees Davis, Jim Berkey, and Al Cody recording a comedic tune, “Please Mr. Kennedy,” which was arranged by Berkey. Adam Driver pretty much steals the scene as Al Cody, providing one of the funniest segments of the film, one I had a lot of fun with, as did the rest of the audience.
And yet another great scene involves Davis playing in an empty performance room in Chicago for Bud Grossman, hoping to secure a gig at his local hot spot. Instead of showing just a brief clip of Davis playing for Grossman, the Coens key in on Davis as he plays the entire song start to finish. It’s a standout scene for a number of reasons, but the music makes it what it is.
Music isn’t featured in the movie so much as it is one of its primary players. The Coens use the film’s music to craft just the right mood and atmosphere for the story they tell, which in turn allows us to view the characters and their actions in the proper light, whether at the beginning, middle, or end of their movie.
In the closing moments of the Coen brothers’ new film, Inside Llewyn Davis, we see a man sitting upon a stool on the spotlit stage of the Gaslight Cafe in New York City, 1961, strumming his guitar and singing an old folk song into the microphone while a small crowd of regulars listens on.
That man is Llewyn Davis.
Inside Llewyn Davis
Grade: ★★★★½ out of ★★★★★
MPAA Rating: R for language including some sexual references
Runtime: 105 minutes