Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen brothers' latest, gets cozy with American folk music, and reveals a soft spot in an otherwise harsh worldview.
Inside Llewyn Davis is the fourth Coen brothers film with a soundtrack curated by super producer T Bone Burnett. The partnership made for memorable moments in The Big Lebowski (Kenny Rogers' “Just Dropped In” during the bowling alley dream sequence, a highlight from a soundtrack noted for its frame of eclectic reference, not generic coherence), and in O Brother, Where Art Thou? (the riverside baptism). However, The Ladykillers’ meld of broad comedy and ‘50s black music (both secular and gospel) didn’t have a comparably stirring musical setpiece. After Brother’s clearly defined historical pocket of “old-timey” music and bluegrass, and Ladykillers’ emphasis on a similarly constrained section of musical history, Inside Llewyn Davis’ 1961 Greenwich Village folk scene setting makes for the Coens’ third film functioning simultaneously as a narrative and demonstrative/instructive American music lesson.
The titular folk singer, played by Oscar Isaac, is newly, involuntarily solo, his partner’s absence eventually—morbidly—explained. Though something of a schmuck prone to losing it, a broke couch-surfing magnet for disruptive chaos, Davis is granted the dignity of extended performance sequences recorded live. As undeniably impressive as Isaac’s performance is for nailing the guitar part while staying in character, patience may flag when confronted with one of his climactic performances: sitting in the barely lit auditorium of a medium-size venue, held in long facial close-ups for the four minutes of the solo acoustic ballad “The Death of Queen Jane.” The crowd-pleasing, group musical number comes earlier—a live-in-studio performance of a novelty tune, “Please Mr. President”—but this performance is pained, from the heart, and dismissed by a club owner: “I don’t hear much money here.”
The Brother soundtrack was an 8 million-plus selling monster that probably left the Coen brothers’ biggest real-world imprint to date, also manifested in the brief, improbable existence of arena-size Appalachian concerts that followed. Talking in an essay by venerable music writer Robert Christgau on Llewyn’s surprisingly fluff-free if understandably worshipful official website, Joel Coen says of folk’s relation to Brother that, “If you trace it back far enough it's all Americana, the same kind of music, the same family tree [...] We felt the folk music revival of the ’50s was in part a revival of the traditional American folk musical forms we'd always been aware of and loved.”
Elsewhere on the site, Burnett shares his theory of what Llewyn Davis is all about. A super-massive producer who’s most recently done time with Elton John, Leon Russell, John Cougar Mellancamp, Burnett says he thinks the movie speaks to how Internet piracy has robbed modern musicians of their living.
“The irony of the Internet, which was supposed to democratize everything, is that it’s consolidated power even more so in the big media companies,” he says. He goes on to rails against crowd-sourcing as forcing artists to follow rather than lead. By this logic, Llewyn Davis’ reverential passing glimpse of Bob Dylan at the movie's end should demonstrate why we can’t have nice things anymore (piracy, the Internet, implicitly any break with the music industry’s most safely canonized legends).
Inside Llewyn Davis doesn’t exactly support Burnett’s elaborate interpretation, but its willingness to stop the narrative for more-or-less uninterrupted performances of certain types of music suggest a self-conscious desire to reinforce certain eternal truths about American music and its canon. Dylan hagiography cuts across generations. It's a constant that’s not necessarily unwelcome, but (nearly) ending the film with a glimpse at a skinny stand-in for the young, barely-known balladeer lip-syncing in blown-out silhouette approaches the absurdly reverential. Dylan’s briefly heard in passing, and the undisguisable sound of a much older recording draws attention to a reenactor’s lips moving not quite in sync.
Is the music throughout granted similarly unmixed affection? The world of the Coen brothers is nearly always a cruel place, but the one thing they’ll go soft for is deep-dish American tunes. Whether this set of performances is worth it is another question, but the songs appear unambiguously presented as music you should get on the right side of history and approve.
Vadim Rizov is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. He tweets at @vrizov.