Film review: Inside Llewyn Davis
Richard James Havis
INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Justin Timberlake
Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen
Some people think this film is about the young Bob Dylan, but it's a lot cleverer than that. Although Inside Llewyn Davis expertly deals with the New York Greenwich Village folk scene that launched the legendary singer, it's set in the cold winter of 1961, just before Dylan arrived.
Therein lies the film's brilliance. By focusing on a talented, vaguely Dylanesque singer whose many attempts to get his career started fail miserably, directors Joel and Ethan Coen make the point that sometimes, it's not how good you are, but when you are, that results in success. Had Llewyn Davis, the film's titular folk singer, been around a few years later, he would doubtlessly have been a star in Dylan's wake. As it is, he's too early, and conservatively attuned folkies don't understand him or his music.
The film may have this philosophical point at its core, but that doesn't mean it skimps on the music. Lovingly recreated 1960s club settings, accurately written characters and some fantastic original folk songs written by a team including the Coens, music producer T Bone Burnett, and — surprisingly — Justin Timberlake, bring life and authenticity to the musical milieu. And this all takes place at locations that perfectly recreate a time which saw traditional folk transitioning to the individualistic voices that helped define the 1960s.
The story, written by the Coens, is a ramble through a week in the life of the anguished folk singer portrayed by Oscar Isaac. Llewyn's a likeable fellow, made grumpy by the fact that he's always flat broke. He had a record out once, with his former partner, but now he's a struggling solo artist. He's earnest and charismatic, and this doesn't always go down well with the business types looking to shoehorn singers into a blander mould.
A life of sleeping on couches is wearing him out, and he's also running out of friends who will lend him money. As he tries one last time to get his career on track, he runs into a plethora of characters. There's Roland (John Goodman), a drug-addled jazzman who despises folk's three-chord simplicity, Peter, Paul and Mary-esque Jean (Carey Mulligan) and Jim (Justin Timberlake). There are also intense Beat poets, condescending university lecturers and sleazy club owners.
One of the many brilliant touches is that Isaac really sings and plays the guitar. Also, all the songs are performed as part of the story, rather than used on a backing track, which gives the audience a direct connection with the character. Timberlake is superb in a supporting role as a traditional folkie.
It's easy to wax lyrical about the musical content of Inside Llewyn Davis, but the exemplary direction also deserves praise. The Coen brothers reference a number of their earlier films, notably Barton Fink's never-ending corridors and Miller's Crossing's abstract scenes and bring a deep literary touch.
Inside Llewyn Davis opens on April 17