At the 2013 London Film Festival, the 57th such edition, The Coen Brothers masterpiece Inside Llewyn Davis was shown. It had already been shown at Cannes and the New York Film Festivals, but it was from this point that it started to circle me; much like the narrative loop we’re taken through as viewers. Or, to stretch this metaphor even further, the circling of Ulysses the cat, the elusive feline who spins Llewyn like a top. More of that later.
Then, just as now and possibly even more so, I went to the cinema all the time. It was not long after having its UK premiere, that the trailers began to show in the cinema and I was immediately transfixed. I saw the trailer so much that I can still remember moments in it now, almost 7 years later. It ended with F. Murray Abraham’s Bud Grossman sat in front of Oscar Isaac’s Llewyn. “Alright, let’s hear something from Insiiiiide Llewyn Davis”, he says, sending every syllable swirling around the room. By the time it finally hit the cinemas in late January, I felt as though it could have been me uttering that insouciant sentence; although not quite like Abraham, more rough Manc less smooth velvet. I saw it in a half empty cinema, in the middle of the day, possibly in the middle of the week, sat on my own with several other cinematic nomads all, I imagined, equally captivated by this odd little film as I was. Once the film was over I remained sat, not quite knowing what I was supposed to think of what I’d seen, but I knew I loved it. For a while answering why, always remained somewhat elusive?
I’ve had several conversations with people who’ve told me they simply don’t like it. Others have told me it’s alright but that it’s not really about anything. On the first point, I obviously don’t agree, otherwise that would be a strange opening to this blog. However, on the second point, I can see that there is an argument for this. Essentially, we see a man struggle and complain for approximately a week and we, as the viewer, end up where we started. Within that week of discontent, bitter cold, couch surfing, hitchhiking, a stray cat(s) and incredible music, there’s so much more bubbling under the surface. It’s this that strikes a chord with me and does so in a way that I find genuinely difficult to explain; it’s a good job I’m writing a blog about it then…
In doing minimal research to write this I read that among others, Casey Affleck, Michael Fassbender and Ryan Reynolds auditioned for the role of Llewyn. I won’t pretend that if there was an alternate reality where Fassbender played Llewyn, that I wouldn’t be fascinated to see that take; but maybe that’s what Frank is? Even then, it’s a complete stretch to even fathom someone else taking Isaac’s place. It’s hard to imagine now that he’s firmly established as an A plus list Hollywood star, but in 2013 when this was released in the US, Oscar Isaac was still considered somewhat of a newcomer. He had small roles Russell Crowe’s wobbly accented take on Robin Hood and The Bourne (Token) Legacy, as well as a great role in Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive. At this point he was a ‘that guy’; you knew him, but couldn’t quite remember his name. After this he went on to make A Most Violent Year, Ex-Machina and a small indie film named Star Wars: The Force Awakens. In an extremely long drawn out point, he’s a mega star now but in casting someone relatively unknown, the Coen Brothers made an inspired choice. Surrounding him with some Coen regulars, such as the aforementioned F. Murray Abraham and John Goodman, alongside strong established young actors of the time like Carey Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund and, dare I say it, Justin Timberlake and also sprinkling in a few other up and coming actors like Adam Driver, who would also go on to star in that small indie film about wars in space set around stars that are awakened by force. The Coen’s had assembled an incredible cast, but they are the Coen Brothers, and when don’t they?
At this point I must mention the brothers Coen (potential folk duo?). Along with Scorsese and Paul Thomas Anderson, they’re right up there with my favourite filmmakers. I find them completely fascinating. Their filmography is eclectic as David Bowie’s discography. There are so many layers to their work that it’s difficult to see where it all connects. How can the makers of Blood Simple, No Country For Old Men and Fargo, also make A Serious Man, The Big Lebowski and this? It’s the kind of thing that fascinates dweebs like me, but the Coens shrug off when asked in interviews, by dweebs like me, where it all connects. Whether or not it all connects is inconsequential at this stage, they just make incredible films. There may well be something in links to Barton Fink and Hail Caesar, thematically it’s said O’ Brother Where Art Thou and Inside Llewyn Davis are both narratively structured, however tenuous the link, on Homer’s Odyssey. Go on, dig deeper and you may find yourself head first with your arse in the air tumbling down a rabbit hole. Before you know it, it’s three days later and you’re dripping in caffeine and nihilism, having taken up smoking and quoting Nietzsche. That took a dark turn, back to this film…
The Coen’s have said that there were characters who were influenced by real life figures from the folk scene in Greenwich Village, but no one was a direct portrayal. Whether or not that is the case we’ll have to take at face value, but remember these are the filmmakers who at the star of Fargo stated “based on a true story”. To be clear, it wasn’t. One thing that is clear is that there were elements of Llewyn based on the folk singer Dave Van Ronk. The film’s title, as well as the title of Llewyn’s album in the film, are directly taken from Inside Dave Van Ronk; right down to the recreation of the album cover. In the bookended start and end, Llewyn sings a cover of ‘Hang Me, Oh Hang Me’, which is a cover of Van Ronk’s. Another figure who is inspired by an infamous figure from the scene is Abraham’s Bud Grosmann, the real life impresario who ran the Gate of Horn club in Chicago, where we see Llewyn visit to perform for him. The difference being that his name was Albert. It’s eluded to in the film that Bud Grossman manages several high profile acts. The real life Grosmann managed Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin, among others. There are several others throughout the film, including Jim and Jean who are played by Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan, who were based on real life folk duo Jim Glover and Jean Ray, as well as the character Troy Nelson, played by Stark Sands (what a name), who was based on singer Tom Paxton. Essentially, just as they do in Barton Fink and would later do in Hail Caesar, the directing maestros blend fact and fiction, reality with fantasy. On these things I should remain objective, but they could’ve introduced Llewyn as Bob Dylan’s divine inspiration and at this point, I’d go with it.
Now that I’ve bumbled my way through some of it’s creation and the people behind it, I guess it would make sense to explain why I’ve decided to write an entire blog about it.
I’ll start with the story in a roundabout way, because story wise what do we actually encounter? It’s 1961 and a cantankerous man is trying to make it as a folk singer in Greenwich Village, New York City. We see him perform several times, he accidentally locks himself out of a friends apartment, at the same time locking out their cat and proceeding to take said cat with him all over NYC. We also see him go to Chicago to the aforementioned Gate of the Horn club, visit a women’s health clinic to prepay for an abortion while finding out that the one he previously paid for with someone else didn’t happen; so he has a child he didn’t know about. He’s also trying to cling on to several relationships, plutonic and intimate, while continually committing acts of betrayal, manipulation and selfishness to further alienate himself. There’s also the conundrum that befalls many artists, such as sacrificing your art for money, resenting the art you make, selling out and simply thinking ‘is it time to stop?’
All of these elements frame our protagonist as, frankly, a bit of an arsehole. And, to be quite honest, he is. However, it’s the strength of the film that somehow you find yourself routing for him throughout. Despite his scheming, despite his outbursts and despite his obvious moments of 60’s masculinity, which viewed with modern sensibilities only come across as 60’s tragedy. Because there’s a huge factor for Llewyn in his odyssey. Throughout all of this is he is reeling from the death of his friend and former musical partner Mike. It’s something touched upon in various points of the film, all seeming to strike a nerve to varying degrees. It’s this that adds a tragic nuance to his behaviour and leads us to believe there are times when he could well be in crisis. He’s introduced to us singing ‘Hang Me, Oh Hang Me’, and knowing that Mike’s death was suicide, adds an even further tragic tone to Llewyn’s song.
I could write about how much I love this film until all my many readers (all seven of you) give up and never bother coming back. I mentioned earlier that I find it hard to explain, but I’ve made an attempt. Ultimately this film affects me deeply and I think it’s because of this. Llewyn is a really good folk singer. Crucially, in a world where he’s surrounded by other good singers (including a glimpsed Bob Dylan), good isn’t quite good enough. He needs to be great, and he just can’t quite get there. As someone who’s had talents in certain areas (clearly not film reviews) and had flashes of taking it somewhere, the idea of getting close but just falling short, resonates deeply.
Inside Llewyn Davis is an ode to being good, but not great. It’s an ode to having the talent, but just not quite the required amount. Inside Llewyn Davis is a masterpiece.