Sunday, February 2, 2014

‘INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS’ LOVES AND LANCES THE FOLK SCENE



Oscar Isaac, notable natural find as musician, actor and cat protector  in “Inside Llewyn Davis.”
By Dominique Paul Noth

It wouldn’t be a Coen Brothers movie if they didn’t take an American era they have deep affection and admiration for – and then douse it in acid soaked in sarcasm and their own artistic comments and sensibilities.

Such is “Inside Llewyn Davis,” which many have taken as ode to the folk music scene of Greenwich Village in the early 1960s.  But a lonesome traveler through those times will quickly see something more, as should today’s general audience.

I for one just came off a personal tribute to Pete Seeger and a theater tribute to the folk movement’s political mentor, Woody Guthrie. I can readily validate firsthand that the purist approach to folk music had a strong intellectual grip on that society yet its own laughable side beyond those bulky clannish sweaters the Clancy Brothers wore to produce an oxymoron -- Irish harmony.

As subtly echoed throughout the film, there were other forces at work to dismantle the folk scene. The radio dial and the big bucks record labels kept sneaking in other forms of music to dilute the folk appeal – rock, jazz, effete early music, demi-folk and more to pull attention and royalties away.

Some aspects of that 52 year old scene are re-created well -- the dark hallways of the eerily alike walk-ups, the constant search for any acquaintance with an apartment whose couch you could flop on, the frequent hitchhiking and endless road trips across the US to the lure of the Village, the casual sex (long before Roe vs. Wade and frankly hardly confined as in the movie to the coffeehouse culture as any urban dweller of the time can tell you).

But there is also considerable gauze wrapped around the Coen memories. For instance, no cockroaches, which actually ruled those walk-ups, dank halls and the club scene more than any Village visitor would like to admit. More importantly, while there was some warmth and camaraderie among fellow acolytes to this music and culture, there were intense rude rivalries, crazies roaming the streets and rank ugliness in and around the café scene.

The absence of much of this can be called poetic license to better riff and rip through the storyline.  Joel and Ethan Coen, screenwriters as well as directors, are also much better at thrust and parry than the inhabitants of that era  were in slicing their opponents with salty dialog and attitudes.

In the pressure of those times and the sheer number of musicians eager to be a part of the scene, new music was built on the folk heritage. Even traditionalists such as Seeger sought ways to embrace the newcomers as part of the inevitable cycle of the people’s music. But some couldn’t and that is emphasized in “Inside Llewyn Davis.”  Like the central character  these musicians could grab a buck doing a commercial gig (a funny sidelight is how Davis takes the money rather than the royalties for what will clearly be a gimmick hit) but resent watering down purist instincts for the wheeler dealers.

The story plays off that artistic discontent, the awareness of the need to scramble and the awareness of the need to maintain integrity. Typical of the Coens’ vision, comedy lurks within  despair and self-doubt.

Stark Sands, Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake
 performing “500 Miles” in “Inside Llewyn Davis.”
The film lives on this seesaw because of Oscar Isaac, whose natural gifts as singer and reactive participant are essential to our participation.  As Davis, he moves from confusion over his singing partner’s suicide  to anger at society’s cruelty toward  his talents, to balancing his mooching needs for a couch to sleep on with guilt over shacking up and his automatic instinct to rescue a straying cat.

The Coens have put mammals ahead of music. The cat becomes a connector for the character even more than the historically faithful tunes. 

The film-makers were very very loosely inspired by Dave Von Ronk, a musician of that era who was actually much more rooted in real-life than this fictional Davis, though his career reflects how fellow musicians respected his talent more than the money labels did. 

Making a film about those times in our time allows some gently wicked asides by the Coens  – such as a young Bob Dylan taking the stage after a Davis set or John Goodman as a heroin addicted jazz artist whose pretenses clearly  should be skewered, yet he gets abundant screen time to skewer folk music.

Isaac is the presence to remember, but the movie’s promoters are correct about one thing. Whether it’s this movie or another – he’s in several of the top films of 2013 and was important in the films that won in 2011 and 2012 -- Goodman is too big and versatile an actor to have so long been overlooked by his peers. 

But the Coens always have a knack for writing memorable vignettes solidly cast. Consider country bumpkin in uniform Stark Sands, a subtle caricature of an up and coming singer. Or Max Casella as a typically slimy nightclub owner.  Particularly, note how Carey Mulligan puts scorn for herself and all men into Jean, the object and participant in every folk-singers’ lust and, it turns out, a key to their employment.  She is another player in the betrayals that Davis must face and conquer. 

“Inside Llewyn Davis” is a satisfying film visually, musically and in its acting, but I wouldn’t classify it as the Coens’ best. Except in the sense that it best reflects what they can do in an imaginative reflexive way – to look deep, get inside and comment. Their films don’t need a pedestal, just an audience.

The author was film and drama critic, then senior editor for features at The Milwaukee Journal, then a leader in online news forums and editor for a decade of the Milwaukee Labor Press. He now writes regularly for several publications on politics and culture, including occasional theater reviews and historical pieces at thirdcoastdaily.

Other movie reviews in this series include "Saving Mr. Banks," "American Hustle," "The Butler," “Nebraska.” “Dallas Buyers Club,” “12 Years a Slave,” “Blue Jasmine”  and “Captain Phillips.”   Check them out and add your comments.