A Folkie Era Remembered “Inside Llewyn Davis”
By Skip Sheffield
As a musician I appreciated the darkly comic plausibility of “Inside Llewyn Davis.” Llewwyn was a Greenwich folk singer who never was but could have been.
As a film fan I dug the bizarre black humor of Joel and Ethan Coen, who had the good sense to hire noted songwriter and record producer T Bone Burnett, who produced the Coen brothers best-selling soundtrack for “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” to produce an eclectic sound track that could have been made by any number of early 1960s folk singers. The character of Llewyn Davis most resembles an under-appreciated Greenwich Village fixture, Dave Van Ronk.
Van Ronk had a loyal following, but it was never enough to make him a star. The fictitious character of Llewyn Davis, played in a breakout performance by Oscar Isaac, has the additional handicap of a stubborn, elitist, perfectionist attitude. Think of Bob Dylan in a really bad mood.
We meet Llewyn Davis in 1961 at the Village’s famed Gaslight Café, which was the launching pad of such folk artists as the Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul and Mary and yes, Bob Dylan. Davis had played the Gaslight so many times he was taken for granted by the audience and the club owner. Davis barely scrapes by, sleeping on couches of tolerant friends.
The most tolerant of these friends is Prof. Mitch Gorfein (Ethan Phillips) and his wife Lillian (Robin Bartlett), who is also a sometimes folk singer.
The Gorfeins have a curious orange cat that will figure in comically in Llewyn’s misadventures and also serves to underscore Llewyn’s selfishness and irresponsibility.
The action of the story takes place in a single week in which Llewyn gets a recording session for a goofy novelty song called “Please Mr. Kennedy.” The sheer ludicrousness of the song and its lame refrain are a comic highlight as performed by Isaac, Justin Timberlake, and a deep-voiced guy named Al Cody (Adam Driver).
The bulk of the action takes place on a road trip to Chicago with a vain jazz player named Roland Turner (John Goodman) and his valet, Johnny 5 (Garrett Hedlund). Llewyn hopes to get a contract from big deal producer Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham).
In a nod to the dark side of the jazz scene, Turner is a junkie and he nearly overdoses in a rest room. Johnny 5 takes it all in stride. It has happened many times before.
There is other darkness. Llewyn’s former girlfriend Jean Berkey (Carey Mulligan), also a folk singer, is pregnant and seeks an expensive and risky alternative to giving birth.
Oscar Isaac seems to have come out of nowhere to do his star turn, singing, playing and acting with great conviction as the conflicted, frustrated artist. Isaac was born in Guatemala of a Cuban father and raised in Miami. He is a product of the Juilliard School in New York and at age 33 he faces a bright future- unlike the character he plays.
I am old enough to remember the tail end of the folk era, which had its venues here in South Florida. It was an idealistic, earnest, passionate time just before the Vietnam War really began heating up to screw up everything. The Coen Brothers have beautifully captured this more naïve time. It comes as no surprise “Inside Llewyn Davis” won the Grand Prix at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.