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The Coen Brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis draws on Bob Dylan's early years for inspiration

The Coen brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis was snubbed at the Oscars but, much like its protagonist, this melancholy period piece deserves a wider audience, writes James Mottram

 

THE SEED OF A Joel and Ethan Coen film can be planted in the strangest of ways. The genesis for 1991's Cannes triple winner, Barton Fink, went back to when the siblings stayed across the street from a sinister-looking hotel while shooting their first film, Blood Simple. (1984). Then there was The Man Who Wasn't There, their 2001 black-and-white drama about a stoic barber, inspired by a poster depicting old-school hairstyles that had made it from the set of their 1994 movie The Hudsucker Proxy to their office wall.

Yet there is arguably no more bizarre birth than that of the brothers' latest, Inside Llewyn Davis. "Several years ago, we were just sitting in the office and Joel said, 'Suppose we start a movie with Dave Van Ronk getting beat up outside Gerdes Folk City?' - which is such an absurd image," says Ethan. An obscure Brooklyn folk musician getting a pasting outside a New York club, where the likes of Bob Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel played? It's not as if that ever happened to poor old Dave.

Typically, though, Ethan, 56, and Joel, 59, have evolved this into one of the most beguiling films of their 30-year careers. When Inside Llewyn Davis played in Cannes last year, it took the Grand Jury Prize (though it was criminally overlooked at the recent Oscars, scoring just two nominations). "I know people have said things are too cold [in their films]," says long-time collaborator "T Bone" Burnett. "This certainly isn't one. This is a very open-hearted film."

Set in 1961, in New York's Greenwich Village, it's loosely inspired by Van Ronk's memoir The Mayor of MacDougal Street. But as with O Brother, Where Art Thou?, their 1930s-era chain-gang musical that raided Homer's The Odyssey, the Coen Brother's latest film blends its fictional characters with ones inspired by fact.

In the 2000 film, there was an appearance by gangster "Baby Face" Nelson and blues musician Tommy Johnson. Here you have Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), a failing folk singer struggling to make a living just at the moment Bob Dylan is about to arrive on the scene and take it mainstream. "Even though stylistically they're very different, both do mash up a lot of different elements," agrees Joel.

Certainly, the spirit of Dylan haunts the film. Its title comes from Van Ronk's 1964 album Inside Dave Van Ronk, but shots of Isaac wandering the wintry streets of New York recall the cover of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (albeit minus the woman on his arm; his love life with the snippy singer Jean, played by Carey Mulligan, is a disaster area). Then there's the blatant reference to Dylan's own manager Albert Grossman, here called Bud Grossman and played by F. Murray Abraham.

Inside Llewyn Davis took the brothers back to their early musical influences - particularly Dylan. "He was a big deal," says Ethan. "The actual period of this movie, 1961, was when we were really small kids, and weren't listening to music. That was later, and Bob Dylan was a really big presence for us, for everybody."

Dylan was also from Minnesota, although "from the most northern part of the state", notes Joel, "where all the iron ore was mined", rather than the Minneapolis city suburb of St Louis Park where they were raised. Even so, "They're all north country Jewish immigrants," in the mind of the white-haired Burnett, who is arguably the missing link between the Coens and Dylan. Their music supervisor, a celebrated producer, once played guitar for Dylan on his 1975-76 Rolling Thunder Revue tour.

The 66-year-old Burnett first worked with the Coens on The Big Lebowski in 1998. Inside Llewyn Davis took him back in time, and he saw something of himself in the struggling Llewyn: "I have a bedroom now, but I slept on couches [then]," he says.

The musical drama's theme is failure. "Llewyn didn't have a career. Hanging around Washington Square Park was never going to be a career. But he would play in places and he would get by," says Burnett. "Dylan was the one who came along and saw a portal into the new world. Llewyn was looking backward and preserving [old folk songs]; Dylan was looking backwards and forwards at the same time."

Working on the music with Justin Timberlake, who co-stars, and Marcus Mumford, lead singer of Mumford & Sons, Burnett was also responsible for getting lead actor Isaac ready. "It's an adapted score, really. It's all adapted music from old tunes and sources. But each one, Oscar would get it and he would internalise it and the song would grow into this beautiful performance. It was amazing watching him do it and reveal these songs," he says.

For Isaac, playing Llewyn Davis felt like kismet. "I feel like I've been preparing for 34 years for this role," he says. Born in Guatemala but raised in Miami, the music his father listened to - Bob Dylan, Cat Stevens - was a particular influence. "All that made me feel ready. So once I got the job, I couldn't wait to do it. I wasn't daunted," he says.

Perhaps this is why Isaac felt destined for the part. Before the actor-singer knew about the film he was in Pittsburgh filming Won't Back Down and, during his downtime, took his guitar to open mic nights, as if he sensed his musical skills would need sharpening. When the prospect of working with the Coens came up, Isaac sent in an audition tape, performing Hang Me, Oh Hang Me - the song that Llewyn opens the film with.

This was a relief for the Coens. "We weren't sure we were going to find someone fully equipped, both as an actor and as a musician, so lightning struck when Oscar walked in the door," says Joel. "I don't think we could've made the movie without him."

It was not unlike the search for the young girl needed for their 2010 remake of True Grit that ultimately led them to Hailee Steinfeld. "Before we met Hailee, it was a worry in the same kind of way. Does this person exist?" says Ethan.

Thankfully, Isaac was perfect. "As the universe treats the Coen Brothers, the person showed up who could do it," smiles Burnett. But it's more than just fate; after 16 films, theirs is a filmmaking process designed to nurture - right back to that first seed.

"It doesn't feel like they're ever baiting you or putting you in some kind of position where you're going to come up with some solution that they'll hit you with," says Burnett. "They just have the best way of working of anybody I've ever seen."

48hours@scmp.com

 

Inside Llewyn Davis screens at the Hong Kong International Film Festival on April 4 and April 6. It opens in cinemas on April 17

 

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