Inside 'Inside Llewyn Davis'
This is not a film review.
Rather, it is a journey of exploration, if you will – an attempt to write my way to understanding why I am such a lone voice on the Coen Brothers' new film, Inside Llewyn Davis.
As disconnected as I almost always feel these days, rarely has that feeling been more pronounced than in light of the near-universal praise for this film. It earned an astonishing 92 on MetaCritic, with the lowest rated review over 60, and it has made it onto what seems like the vast majority of lists of the top 10 films of the year. Yet to me it seems to lack the joy and passion I associate with that time, the late Fifties and early Sixties folk music scene centered around Greenwich Village. Instead the film seems too painfully hip and distanced.
In thinking about the movie, I neither want to overly criticize it nor set up a straw man to tear down. The film represents the Coen Brothers' filmmaking at its finest, both nuanced and controlled. There is nothing in Kimberley Jones' four-star Chronicle review that I overtly disagree with or dispute. The atmospheric film, beautifully evokes New York City and the period and features a star-establishing turn by Oscar Isaac as well as a consistently outstanding supporting cast.
The music deserves much of the praise it has earned, but my concerns include it. There was an electricity in seeing Dave Van Ronk live, plus an overwhelming humor in his songs and talk. Many of his contemporaries also rose above their material, especially the traditional songs, by spectacular performances. Isaac's Davis captures some of this – his music is powerful and moving – but it's just not stunning in the way so much of it was at the time. As recorded a good deal of it remains that way.
In O Brother, Where Art Thou? when the Soggy Bottom Boys perform "Man of Constant Sorrow," it is absolutely electrifying. There is nothing dated or period about the music, and it doesn't need any such context to work. It is alive. As strong as much of the music is in Inside Llewyn Davis, there is not a similar transcendent moment.
The main problem with the film may be one of tone: The film is an ode of darkness lacking light. It is comedic but in a way more black than life-embracing. These concerns are especially relevant in considering the greater resonance of the work.
The film is a loving homage by the Coen Brothers, ably assisted by T-Bone Burnett, both to an era and to the NYC folk scene in general. Though the filmmakers say their story was merely inspired by Van Ronk's, my take is that it is more narrowly focused fictional biography than a period-evoking piece. Davis' journey is deep and downward, with disaster following disaster mostly brought on by himself. Van Ronk's zest for life and humor is completely lacking, though in telling this story, the filmmakers have no obligation to include those.
Mathew DeKinder writing in the Suburban Journals of Greater St. Louis notes that the "movie’s underlying gag is that Llewyn and all his contemporaries are essentially dinosaurs going about their business, unaware that an asteroid named Bob Dylan is hurtling towards them to flatten their world." Again, picking a relatively obscure critic is not an exercise in setting up an easy target, but that I think the statement gets to the heart of my issues with the film.
Emphasizing this is Ty Burr's Boston Globe review:
"Anyway, Llewyn represents all the performers who weren’t Dylan — who slept on the same couches and sang the same songs but would have died before going electric. 'Positively Fourth Street,' Bob’s kiss-off to the folkies, is a song about true believers like Llewyn. The Coens both cherish the character for his holier-than-thou purism and grin as it brings him to grief."
The Dylan controversy is the unspoken subtext of the film, but there were really at least two (if not a number of) Dylan controversies, and the film – or at least the reaction to it – confuses them. For one, there was the pushback from the absolutely committed folk purists against folk singers beginning to write their own songs. This was a discussion largely carried out in coffeehouses and in publications like Sing Out. But far more intense and public was the controversy over Dylan going electric at Newport in 1965.
Dylan was by no means alone or unique when it came to not just writing his own songs but also in covering old ones. More than half of the songs on his first album were traditional covers, albeit some with added lyrics.
In Chronicles Dylan wrote of his move to New York City, "I was there to find singers, the ones I heard on record – Dave Van Ronk, Peggy Seeger, Ed McCurdy, Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry, Josh White, the New Lost City Ramblers, Reverend Gary Davis and a bunch of others – most of all to find Woody Guthrie." These were not all folk purists; many of them were songwriters. Guthrie in particular was among the most prolific American songwriters during his decades-long career.
The film paints Davis' adherence to performing standards as an increasing anachronistic career move in a changing folk environment. But the real controversial change was not traditional vs. original songs; it was actually a few years away, when Dylan went electric.
Even Van Ronk, the "Mayor of MacDougal Street" and an established traditionalist, early on embraced the work of an emerging generation of singer-songwriters. Although he only wrote a few songs himself, he was an enthusiastic champion and performer of new songs by young writers like Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Leonard Cohen.
When Dylan first appeared on the scene, as he writes in Chronicles, "my template [was] hard-core folk songs backed by incessantly loud strumming." One of Dylan's earliest Village mentors was Fred Neil, who had already started writing his own songs.
I'm not trying to set up a false dichotomy, but I am concerned that the film is unintentionally perpetuating one. The consequence of this is that the joy and sense of discovery of the scene gets lost in Davis' personality and a sense of his impending career doom. There was a real enthusiasm to the time, an absolute love of music accompanied by enormous appetites for new music by most of those involved. Certainly much of this "new" music was a voyage into America's past, discovering the hidden and in some cases lost treasures of folk, country, bluegrass, Appalachian ballads, gospel, and blues among other traditional forms. There was also, however, tremendous excitement over the new generation of singer-songwriters and their work.
In all Davis' couchsurfing in the film, what is really missing is his going through the record collections at the places he stays. This was an absolutely critical part of that experience. Dylan was notorious for not only listening to any albums he could find but occasionally lifting his favorites.
This piece is probably as infuriating to read as it is difficult to write. I feel as if I'm somehow blaming the movie for what it is not rather than simply considering what it is. Upon first hearing that the Coens were doing a film inspired by Dave Van Ronk, I was excited. I went in expecting to love it. It was terribly disappointing.
I have huge problems with the Coens sometimes, but more often than not I'm a cheerleader. Raising Arizona (1987), Miller's Crossing (1990), Fargo (1996), The Big Lebowski (1998), and O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) are all extraordinary movies.
There is not a body of films on this period, and so this film carries a greater weight in many ways. It tells not just its story but the story of a time and a place as well as its talented inhabitants. In the film's dourness, in its dark and downward tone, the film seems to capture the verisimilitude of the time. The very carefully textured cinematic atmospheric argues that what is being relayed on screen is a certain truth. In telling Davis' story, it pretends to tell – or, at least, is interpreted as telling – a greater story. But ultimately, the film is what it is. It works on its terms, but it is limited by its tone and the protagonist's character. Rather than celebratory like O Brother, the film is limiting, shrinking the story and sense of the period it evokes rather than capturing, illuminating, or expanding those.
Ultimately these may be the most unfair grounds for criticizing the film, but they begin to get at why Inside Llewyn Davis doesn't work, at least for me.