Those of us who know Bob Dylan’s story well can point to his profound influence on the folk music scene in Greenwich Village in the early sixties. What is remarkable is how Dylan had shaped his own unique style from an amalgam of folk singers of the time, borrowing what he needed from Woody Guthrie and absorbing the best of the rest from everyone else. That doesn’t explain his genius, nor does it explain his subsequent break with traditional folksinging — going electric, infusing his lyrics with rock-n-roll poetry, and refusing to be lumped in with the protest folkies of the time. Dylan’s shift from conversational to confessional is the crux of his musical evolution. While none of that may seem to matter in Joel and Ethan Coen’s melancholy meditation on the time before Dylan changed everything, awareness of the split that was brewing makes the movie all the more potent. Inside Llewyn Davist captures a distinct moment in time when a scraggly young man from Hibbing, Minnesota struggled to find his place on the brink of a wayward movement about to be forever altered.
Watching the folk singers in Llewyn Davis, it’s easy to see how a guy like Dylan could completely overwhelm everything else on offer at the time. How do you justify hard-knock ballads about your life when the guy right behind you is Bob Dylan? A man who shows up at the mic playing his guitar like everyone else but departing the traditional laments of folk music to write lyrics like you’ve never heard before. For better or worse, the thing that stands out about early folk music is how genial and predictable it all was.
Wintertime in New York town
The wind blowin’ snow around
Walk around with nowhere to go
Somebody could freeze right to the bone
I froze right to the bone
New York Times said it was the coldest winter in seventeen years
I didn’t feel so cold then
I swung onto my old guitar
Grabbed hold of a subway car
And after a rocking, reeling, rolling ride
I landed up on the downtown side
I walked down there and ended up
In one of them coffee-houses on the block
Got on the stage to sing and play
Man there said, “Come back some other day
You sound like a hillbilly
We want folk singers here”
Well, I got a harmonica job, begun to play
Blowin’ my lungs out for a dollar a day
I blowed inside out and upside down
The man there said he loved m’ sound
He was ravin’ about how he loved m’ sound
Dollar a day’s worth
And after weeks and weeks of hangin’ around
I finally got a job in New York town
In a bigger place, bigger money too
Even joined the union and paid m’ dues
Now, a very great man once said
That some people rob you with a fountain pen
It didn’t take too long to find out
Just what he was talkin’ about
A lot of people don’t have much food on their table
But they got a lot of forks ’n’ knives
And they gotta cut somethin’ – Dylan
Into this seemingly uncorrupted world comes Llewyn Davis, a folk singer who was part of a singing duo until his partner killed himself. That’s the essential premise, but the film is about so much more than the events of the time. You can almost see these guys as disciples in a less subversive Life of Brian, as dozens of scrappy young men like Dylan loitered around bars with no winter coat, a guitar slung over their shoulder, and a vulnerable neediness that women can’t help but respond to.
But this film is only partly about a peripheral player revolving around the success of Bob Dylan’s world. Llewyn Davis, in fact, isn’t about success at all. It’s about failure, artistic failure, personal failure, and how the smallest fumbles can forever alter the course of your life — a cat accidentally gets out, you forget to use a condom, you’re trying to make your mark as a folk singer right before Bob Dylan comes to town.
But what if the big break you’re hoping for never comes? You are then left to sift through the wreckage of that dream. Poor Llewyn can’t get anything right. He keeps hammering at the dream but there is no magic moment of success waiting for him, no startling bursts of genius. The only remarkable thing about him is what a fuck up he is. He ends up playing the part of Sisyphus, pushing the boulder up the hill only to see it roll back down again.
Joel and Ethan Coen play with the idea of timing, of circumstance and consequence, in various ways. Every time Llewyn is given the opportunity to do the right thing he almost always botches his shot. At the same time, Llewyn is doing the best he can to make things right. It isn’t for lack of trying that he screws everything up — it is simply bad luck, mixed with the false perception that perseverance will pay off for everyone in the end, the cruel myth that the American Dream is really accessible to everyone.
Oscar Isaac plays Llewyn Davis, based very loosely on Dave Van Ronk’s memoir (but not really) of Greenwich Village in the late fifties and early sixties. Davis is a man with big dreams who has no clue as to how to live. He gets by bouncing from one friend’s couch to another. His records don’t sell. His money is dwindling.
Who knows what might have happened to music, to folk singers, had Dylan never arrived in Greenwich Village in the early sixties. Somehow, throughout the film, you can hear pulse beats of Dylan himself, and his obvious influence on the Coen brothers. Not only in the way Llewyn is portrayed to evoke a figure who helped prime Greenwich Village for the likes of Dylan, but the themes that weigh heavy in Dylan’s own canon — themes of happenstance, absurdity, love gone wrong, and fate. It is fate, in fact, that seems to always chase after Llewyn, and twists of fate that plague him. Even when he’s doing his best there are still forces beyond his control to thwart his efforts.
The Coens have made what is likely to be one of the best films of the year, and certainly among their own best work, even though they’ve stepped a bit out of their comfort zone in some respects, especially with the absence of Roger Deakins. The film has a different look than we’re accustomed to seeing from the Coens because they’re working with Bruno Delbonnel for the first time.
Carey Mulligan very nearly steals the show as as Llewyn’s fed up ex-girlfriend. John Goodman lends a whiff of surreal Mephistopheles, as usual, and other famous faces continually show up to surprise us. There is also the bit with the cat but to say any more would ruin one of the best things about the film.
Inside Llewyn Davis hovers somewhere between comedy and tragedy, never committing fully to either. The film is part of the worldview of the Coen brothers which mostly doesn’t trust that any of us will get or deserve a happy ending. But neither is it unrelenting bleak. What matters, finally, to Llewyn Davis isn’t that he becomes famous, or that he dies trying — but that, for a few brief minutes he’s up there singing. He knows his song well, though it takes time for him to realize that to achieve greatness in music — or any art for that matter — is to access parts of yourself most of the rest of us keep hidden. Bob Dylan has always had an exceptional gift to tap that vein. Llewyn Davis has it too but it’s harder for him to find and impossible for him to hold onto.
Inside Llewyn Davis comes like a breath of fresh air at the Cannes Film Fest, an accomplished, breathtaking work, a portrait of a specific time and place before everything changed. Like Dylan himself, the Coens keep evolving, never settling on one style for very long. Bob Dylan is still playing music, still writing songs, the fire that burns within him, one gifted him by the fates, still obliterates all others. But that doesn’t mean Llewyn Davis’ tale should remain untold. Our best stories are not just about the brightest supernovas. Our collective dreams are also lit by twinkling stars that don’t even have a name, though they hold their place in the firmament nonetheless, forced into faltering orbits by wrong turns, bad timing, and fate.