The Coen Bros tell the tale of an idealistic troubadour who resists the the onset of 'popular' folk music. Llewyn Davis is a reluctant solo artist, who watches a series of friends and former collaborators 'sell out'.
CANNES FILM FESTIVAL: The Coen Bros. Cannes Competition entry Inside Llewyn Davis – winner of the Grand Prix (second place) at the festival – accompanies the title character as he tries to make a go of it as a folksinger in the winter of 1961. He plays guitar well enough as accompaniment to his heartfelt solo renditions of inevitably dour songs. Llewyn's singing voice is impressive but his personality is not. He's a put-upon New Yorker who reviles the "careerism" of his folkie friends if they plan their lives more than one day into the future.
Almost all of the characters are either permanently or intermittently obnoxious
Much as the characters in The Great Gatsby don't know that their steady diet of Jazz Age excess is going to come crashing down, the characters in Inside Llewyn Davis can't envision the coming folk explosion in which the likes of Bob Dylan will become a household word and a certain of his freshly-minted songs will be sung around campfires as if they'd been passed down through the decades. Llewyn (pronounced Loo-Win) is a purist. That's admirable in theory and borderline insufferable in the real world.
Guatemala-born, Julliard-trained Oscar Isaac is simultaneously forthright and forlorn as the down-and-out folkie who has no place of his own and sleeps on the couches of Lower Manhattan friends who will have him, resorting to Upper West Side academic pals, the Gorfeins, when they won't.
Once part of an obscure duo, he has recorded a solo album but no much-needed royalties have materialised. There's a slow burn running gag that kicks into gear when the Gorfeins' cat escapes due to Llewyn's carelessness.
Fellow folk performer Jean (a cranky and profane Carey Mulligan) is counting on habitually broke Llewyn to fund a costly delicate matter. Llewyn's relationship with his sister is strained. ("Everything you touch turns to s**t, like King Midas' idiot brother.") Her suburban family life is a literally too-close-to-home example of what Llewyn finds stifling about buttoned-down American life. But when he takes to the road in a memorable excursion to Chicago with characters played by John Goodman (loquacious) and Garrett Hedlund (taciturn), the film enters a realm that could be dubbed 'Still Coens But Definitely Not New York’.
Almost all of the characters are either permanently or intermittently obnoxious. Some might say that that's par for the course with the prolific siblings. There is a great deal of humour but almost all of it is grounded in suffering and disappointment with enlightenment out of reach. Which, were one given to bad puns, might cause one to mention, ahem, Zen Coens.
The writer-directors wisely allow songs to be performed in their entirety by individuals who can actually sing (including Justin Timberlake in a pleasant turn as half of the clean-cut duo he forms with his onscreen wife). The lyrics to the songs were not translated in the subtitles on the world premiere print at Cannes, which means that viewers who don't understand English had no indication of what the songs (most serious, one hysterically funny) were about. The technical term for that in a movie about the pure days of the folk music revival is 'glaring omission’.
Casual listeners and music lovers alike have told me over the years that they "never listen to the lyrics to songs". Huh? Granted, a catchy melody is a catchy melody. But who in their right mind would contend that whether it's Carmen warning "If you fall for me, beware!" or Dylan wheezing "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows," it's all pretty much interchangeable? (For one thing, the 'Weathermen’ of the Weather Underground movement would still be looking for a name.) But seriously, if there's a musical form where the lyrics count, it's folk music.
When Llewyn performs it's clear he feels, truly feels, the plight of the weary and exploited and downtrodden of the earth – and possibly any adjacent planets with an underclass. In the film's opening frames he gives a magnificent rendition of 'Hang Me’, a song about a man whose hanging is imminent. Llewyn's delivery, with just voice and guitar, is so achingly plaintive that we expect to hear a neck snapping within an unforgiving noose.
Folk historians tell us that the commercial growth of the whole folk music scene was a bit of an accident, fuelled by the fact that it was far cheaper for café and bar owners to book poets and small acoustic acts (solo, duos, maybe a trio but never more than four performers and no wind, brass or percussion instruments) because, under strict New York Cabaret laws, larger groups required a costly permit. Once it became known that customers would show up to hear a guy with a guitar or a woman with a zither and they'd still order drinks without more elaborate entertainment, the die was cast.
Quite a bit happens in the course of the film but the Coens themselves are the first to admit that there's no plot. Llewyn gets beaten up in an alley toward the start and the entire film is an attempt to explain why somebody might want to punch and kick a seemingly peaceful folkie.
Although the story is set in winter and the visuals boast a wintry sensibility, watching the movie is a bit like trying to guess the temperature of the hot water Llewyn's gotten himself into at any given moment.
If Oscar Issac looks familiar, be it known that he played José Ramos-Horta (the second president of East Timor) in Balibo, for which he was named Best Supporting Actor of 2009 by the Australian Film Institute.
Watch 'Inside Llewyn Davis'
Saturday 4 June, 11:15pm on SBS / Streaming after at SBS On Demand
Director: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Adam Driver, John Goodman, F. Murray Abraham