If, as a music fan, you know anything about the Coen Brothers’ new film Inside Llewyn Davis, you know that it’s about the early 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene. That is, indeed, the film’s setting—but this quiet, intensely personal film isn’t “about” that scene in the ways you might expect. Though it has elements of parody, it’s nowhere near A Mighty Wind; and though its music producer is T-Bone Burnett, who also oversaw O Brother, Where Art Thou?, it’s not an ebullient celebration like that film. Instead, Inside Llewyn Davis poses some open questions about the mid-century folk scene—and the more you know about that corner of American music history, the more things you’ll have to talk about after seeing the film.
The film is named after a fictitious folk album, the solo debut of the eponymous musician. Llewyn Davis—it’s a Welsh name, he explains—is a Silent Generation folkie who’s talented, but who’s struggling to break out of the seemingly interminable pass-the-hat phase of his career. The film follows Davis (Oscar Isaac) through a few days in his life, during which he road-trips to Chicago to audition for the influential agent and club owner Bud Grossmann (F. Murray Abraham). As the camera saunters along with Davis, we meet his friends, his family, and musical peers—including one (Carey Mulligan) with whom he’s just finished a secret, ill-fated affair.
The Coen Brothers’ most conspicuous gift as filmmakers is absolute control of style—to the point where, in some of their films, the style suffocates the characters. Inside Llewyn Davis is consistent with the brothers’ previous films insofar as it’s an exercise in high style, but here, the style is what you might call “character film.” In the manner of the French New Wave films that were en vogue during the period Llewyn Davis depicts, the film is loosely plotted: its characters bump up against each other in various situations, and by the time the credits roll, we’ve learned a lot about what makes Llewyn Davis tick.
Though he happens to be a 60s folksinger, in broad outline Llewyn Davis’s life isn’t that different from that of a lot of musicians of his time and ours—and plenty of other gifted, confused, financially challenged artists of all eras. Where the music comes into play—thematically—is in its evocative sense of suspended time.
“Folk” has meant any number of things with respect to music, but the common denominator in the so-called Folk Revival of the 50s and 60s was an interest in stripping music down to its essentials—to acoustic arrangements, basic chords, and timeless themes. Many musicians played traditional songs, and others wrote new songs in traditional styles. Inside Llewyn Davis has a bit of fun with the more commercial entries in the genre—the polished, jokey sounds of the Kingston Trio and their many wannabes—but Davis favors atmospheric ballads, to which the Coens’ camera attends rapturously.
When Davis sings of ancient kings and queens, whose music is it? It’s beautiful, but distant: the lyrics speak to Davis’s life only elliptically and metaphorically. Inside Llewyn Davis depicts folk music as concerned with the eternal truths of human nature, but also as an escape from the sort of here-and-now concerns to which we might do well to attend before worrying about the forgone fates of mythical figures.
This all comes together in the film’s conclusion, which I won’t describe except to say that it underlines the cyclical nature of life and music even while pointing to the possibility of progress—the possibility of new frontiers for Llewyn Davis, for folk music, and for all of us. Inside Llewyn Davis is essential viewing for music fans interested in the Folk Revival, but it’s not an educational film in the conventional sense; instead, the film gets at the complicated emotional truth of American music at one of its most pivotal crossroads.