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.