HuffingtonPost.com — Pity the poor musician, down on his luck. Nothing is going right. He has no place to sleep, no money in his pocket, his worldly possessions reduced to a box of unsold albums. His musical partner jumped off a bridge, and his friend’s wife, who is also his lover, is now pregnant and wants him to pay for an abortion just in case the kid is his. And the crowning blow, he’s lost the cat of his only reliable benefactors.
Yes, it’s a hard road for most musicians, but if taken with the Coen Bothers, bound to be entertaining. Their new film, Inside Llewyn Davis, launches us once more onto the breach of a tumultuous journey, in some ways reminiscent of their Ulysses saga, Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? But this time it’s through the world of the beat poets and musicians of the early 1960s.
Loosely based on Dave Van Ronk’s memoir The Mayor of MacDougal Street, Inside Llewyn Davis won the Grand Prix at Cannes. Set in Greenwich Village in 1961, the film portrays the folk music scene before Bob Dylan arrived, when the music was from all over America and the musicians were from Brooklyn.
Oscar Isaac plays the talented and mercurial Llewyn Davis. With his dark eyes and sensuous mouth, he’s perfectly cast as the beat musician who vacillates between brooding self-absorption and natural sympathy. His duel background as actor and musician make him a shoe-in for the role: Isaac played in bands before going to Julliard’s theatre school, where he graduated in 2005. His pitch-perfect tone carries throughout, whether strumming songs or negotiating abortions.
The film uses the interesting device of framing the story with bookend scenes: Llewyn Davis getting beat up in a back alley behind a folk music club. If there’s any musical genre synonymous with pacifism, it’s folk music, so this provocative opening sets us up to wonder what a guitar-picking folk musician could have done to warrant that. The answer is clear by the time we see the scene again at the end.
Long-time Coen Brothers collaborator T.Bone Burnett produced the soundtrack. A musician and composer in his own right, he produced the music for many movies including Cold Mountain, Crazy Heart, The Big Lebowski and Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? The score is a valentine to American folk music, sporting traditional songs like “Fare Thee Well” and “500 Miles,” as well as a new rendition of Tom Paxton’s “The Last Thing on My Mind” with the Punch Brothers. The music carries the film beautifully, elevating its spirits, evidence of the sweet fruit that is the bounty of all this artistic suffering.
The placement of the songs is at times provocative, with a tongue-in-cheek timing — folk-song idealism is intercut with harsh realities. Carey Mulligan is excellent as Jean Berkey, who, together with her husband (Justin Timberlake), sings songs of dewy-eyed sweetness with the same tongue that lashes out at Llewyn Davis with vitriolic invectives.
Llewyn cycles through his address book for places to sleep. He ends up on a couch if he’s lucky, the floor if he’s not, and occasionally a railroad station bench. It’s a dark portrait, but Coen Brothers dark, the depressing facts alleviated with sardonic humor. With a spot-on New Yorker’s sensitivity to neighborhood, one character says, “He threw himself off the George Washington Bridge? Who does that? You don’t throw yourself off the George Washington Bridge, you throw yourself off the Brooklyn Bridge.”
A cat provides continuity through the film. When Llewyn is leaving the apartment of his best hosts, their cat slips out the door just as it swings shut and locks behind him. He runs to the alley and scoops up the cat, which proceeds to test all its nine lives with Llewyn.
Lewyn needs the cat almost as much as the cat needs him, for the cat shows he cares. He can’t desert the cat. He’s fallen so far, he’s one step above pushing his stuff around in a shopping cart, but he saves the cat even while he is betrayed by most everyone around him.
John Goodman is terrific as a Cyclopes sort of character in the back seat of the car that picks up Llewyn when he hitchhikes his way to Chicago, the darkest sequence in the film. F. Murray Abraham plays Bud Grossman, the club manager who auditions Llewyn and says, “I don’t hear any money here.” No gig to be had, nothing but snow coming through the soles of his shoes.
Despite its satiric irreverence, Inside Llewyn Davis is a compassionate reminder of how hard it is to be an artist, and of the great legacy musicians leave behind. At the end of the day, when a civilization is assessed with the clarity of historical perspective, it is the arts that most define it: architecture, painting, plays, philosophy, music. We should value these professions for the rich contributions they make to our culture.