Over and over web journalists have been reporting that Inside Llewyn Davis, the currently-filming Coen Bros. film set against the backdrop of the early ’60s folk scene in Greenwich Village, is “loosely based on the life and times of ’60s folk singer Dave Van Ronk.” Well, I’ve just read Joel and Ethan Coen‘s screenplay, and I can tell you that the character of Llewyn Davis bears no resemblance whatsover to the Dave Van Ronk I’ve read about over the years.
Carey Mulligan, Oscar Isaac shooting scene from Coen Bros.’ Inside Llewyn Davis.
The large, hulking Van Ronk got going as a Manhattan-based performer sometime in the mid ’50s. He was initially a jazz musician before shifting over to folk music. By the time the early ’60s rolled around he was fairly well ensconced in “the scene.” He gradually acquired a reputation as a big personality who knew everyone, and who had taken it upon himself to organize Village musicians so they wouldn’t be exploited by cafe owners who wanted to pay them zilch.
Van Ronk was always a relatively minor, small-time figure in terms of fame and record sales, but he was heavily committed to folk music, to the West Village musician community, to his troubadour way of life and certainly to everything that was starting to happen in the early ’60s. If nothing else a man who lived large.
Llewyn Davis as created by the Coen bros. (and played by the relatively small-statured and Latin-looking Oscar Isaac) is a guy who lives and thinks small, and who’s no match for Van Ronk spiritually either. He’s glum, morose — a kick-around guy trying to make it as a folk musician but not much of a go-getter. He’s pissed-off, resentful, a bit dull. He can sing and play guitar and isn’t untalented, but he has no fire in the belly. And any way you want to slice it Llewyn Davis is not Van Ronk. Or at least, not in any way I was able to detect.
Inside Llewyn Davis began filming in Manhattan last month, and it might be released before the year’s end. Scott Rudin is one of the producers. Wikipedia says Paramount will distribute domestically. It costars Isaac, Carey Mulligan (as a pissed-off folk singer who’s become pregnant by Davis and needs to abort their child), Justin Timberlake as Mulligan’s folk-troubadour husband, Garrett Hedlund, John Goodman, F. Murray Abraham, Stark Sands and Jeanine Seralles.
The Coen’s script, typically sharp and well-honed with tasty characters and tart, tough dialogue, is about lethargy, really. And about taking care of a friend’s cat. And seeing to an abortion and trying to get paid and figure out your next move and…whatever else, man. It’s about a guy who isn’t even close to getting his act together, who just shuffles around from one couch to the next, grasping at straws, doing a session recording one day and trying to land a performing gig the next, like a rolling stone, no direction home.
It’s about how shitty it felt to be aimless and broke without a lot of passion in the first year of the Kennedy administration. A line from an Amazon review of Van Ronk’s co-authored autobiography notes that “the truth is that being a folk singer in the late 1950s wasn’t very much fun.” That sums up Inside Llewyn Davis. It’s about a guy who “exists” as a folk singer rather than one who is really struggling to be heard and really living the life and half-getting somewhere.
The period details are subtle and spot-on, and yes, Bob Dylan does make an oblique appearance at the very end (and is heard singing “I Was Young When I Left Home“) but Davis…? What a loser, what a deadhead. But I loved the script. It’s a real Coen Bros. film. When you’ve finished it you know you’ve tasted the early ’60s and that atmosphere (if I know the Coens the CG recreations of 1961 Manhattan are going to be exceptional) and that kick-around way of life, and that you’ve really become familiar with Llewyn Davis’s loser lifestyle. It’s something to bite into and remember. It has flavor and realism, but it has no story to speak of, really. Shit just happens. It’s a bit like A Serious Man, but without the theme about God’s cruelty and indifference to the plight of mortals.
What are the Coen’s saying? If you’re not driven or talented enough, don’t try to become a performer because life will take you down if you don’t have that spark? Something like that.
There’s another Dylan-performed tune called “Dink’s Song” that is heard at the halfway mark.
Oscar Isaac in’ Inside Llewyn Davis.