REVIEW: The Coen Brothers’ ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ A Moving Tribute To Folk Music

Movies & TV

By: / September 27, 2013

The 51st New York Film Festival has allowed us the opportunity to screen The Coen Brothers’ nostalgic ode to an artist’s plight. But does the folksy film have that Bob Dylan-esque allure to attract moviegoers?

The Coen Brothers are no stranger to making reality-based entertainment, as the writing-directing-producing duo have created a host of content rooted in common lore. A few years ago, the twosome announced their next project, Inside Llewyn Davis, an intense look at the Greenwich Village, New York City folk scene of the early ’60s based on Dave Van Ronk’s posthumously published The Mayor of MacDougal Street.

Lucky for audiences who choose to see this film, Oscar Issac is an authentic choice to play a character just as compelling as the legendary songwriter.

As the titular character, Issac’s Llewyn Davis is still a respected force in the world of troubadours and beat poets, but hasn’t found his footing to take that into the next level. Performing at the Gaslight Café, a tiny coffee shop in a MacDougal Street basement, Davis’ luckiest nights come when audiences respectfully listen to some of his old ballads. The Brothers Coen recreate a specific moment in Americana that marked a shift in the political, pop culture and musical conscious of the country. Choosing to tell a tale that embodies the millions who have talent, yet don’t find the luck that comes with success — Inside Llewyn Davis paints an intriguing portrait showcasing the face of artistic failure.

Issac’s character serves as the connector, the lynchpin in the Coens’ picture, which is going on right at the center of the pre-Bob Dylan folk music scene. T-Bone Burnett, the St. Louis, Missouri music legend who once toured with Billy Boy Grunt, constructs a revue of classic folk songs that buoy the film with a sense of knowing tragedy. These series of unfortunate events follow the main character like a black cloud (very few scenes actually happen with blue skies), and makes his journey all the more universal and wistful. For any fan of folk music, the winter of 1961 served as the curtain call for artist’s within the genre.

On nights when he wasn’t able to curb a residual check from his agent, Davis would be hopping from couch to couch in a bid to stay warm; scavenging the Greenwich area to find a friend’s cat, and doing whatever it took to stay authentic to his craft.

Issac, in a role that he plays with remarkable passion and vitality, won the role of Llewyn Davis over a number of accomplished actors and musicians. A performer in his own right since his early teens, Issac has been singing and playing guitar, which is a plus for a movie that required the actors to sing live during filming. His honeyed voice sounds rich in moments next to friends Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Jean (Carey Mulligan). Since the story follows a week in Llewyn’s life, beginning with his rendition of Dave Von Ronk’s “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” the character’s fortunes don’t improve, yet don’t lessen the audience’s enjoyment of the picture. Through doors locked behind (and in front of) him to garnering no royalties from his own record, Oscar Isaac presents the character of Llewyn Davis as someone fighting for that last shot even if the light’s have already been turned off.

The Coens ability to create rich, fulfilling and complicated characters with unconventional storytelling is a keen trait that not too many filmmakers have. The trend of left-of-center interactions happen throughout the film, as Davis decides to go on a limb to Chicago to perform for an actual music producer played by F. Murray Abraham. An army private/folk singer (played by easygoing Stark Sands) makes crashing on the couch not so complicated, while John Goodman’s dismissive jazz musician bashes folk with his trademark quick wit. Garrett Hedlund manages to get in on the oddball act as Goodman’s valet who looks like a greaser straight out from the 1950s.

All of these definitions of what it means to find your true self, how to become success in a changing climate, and more hit home with the audience because the Coens and their players get the feel and look so right.

From the fictional album covers to the songs performed by Jim and Jean, Inside Llewyn Davis is so perfectly on point about that time and place in history that you’re enthralled with how much detail has been done to appear authentically real. As the picture salutes a moment in New York performing arts scene that felt on the verge of being old even then, Oscar Issac and The Brothers Coen manifest the soul of an artist who openly bucks the allure of the shiny new sound brilliantly.

It finds true beauty not just in the pre-Bob Dylan nature of the times, but in the journey of an artist who, through failure, manages to succeed through sheer determination.

Don’t believe us?! You can watch the trailer for yourself below:

Inside Llewyn Davis is slated for holiday release this December. Meanwhile, the 51st annual New York Film Festival runs from Sept. 27 till October 13.