Inside Llewyn Davis: A near-perfect mix of music and message

Inside Llewyn Davis: A near-perfect mix of music and message
Photo By Alison Rosa

Any time Oscar-winning St. Louis Park filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen announce that they are releasing a new film, there is going to be plenty of local interest. When they decided to set their new one, Inside Llewyn Davis, in the early-'60s folk music scene of New York City that would eventually embrace a young Bob Dylan, Minnesota moviegoers became even more intrigued.

Last night, I was fortunate to attend an early screening of the Coen brothers' new film -- which opens in an exclusive early engagement at the Uptown Theatre this Thursday night -- and came away impressed with the focus and care that was shown to folk music throughout the film, as well as the knowing attention given to the insecure struggle of the creative life.

From the onset, Inside Llewyn Davis is a film that holds the uncertain power of music at its restless core, as the movie opens in 1961 at the famed Gaslight Cafe with a hushed live performance by Davis (whose character is based on Dave Van Ronk, with the movie loosely based on his posthumous memoir, The Mayor of MacDougal Street).

Music has always played an intimate and important role in film, but I have yet to come across a movie that pays such close, careful attention to live performances and how the right songs can silence and stir a room.

Most of the music played in the film is aired from the start of the track to its finish, with the full impact of the songs themselves given plenty of time to sink in with the audience and linger within the storyline of the movie itself.

At times, portions of the film take on the look of a music video, just one done by the expert artistic eye of the Coens. They stylishly capture various performances from on stage, in the studio, and around the dinner table with a studied, affectionate air that reinforces just how much music means to them as both fans and filmmakers. They also starkly express the frustration and despair involved in creative rejection, and the desolate, disconsolate space we retreat to when confronted with being dismissed.

Oscar Isaac was a revelation in the role of Llewyn, injecting the character with an unguarded vulnerability that he tries to mask with coarse language and an arrogant veneer. But he is a fragile, underappreciated (and endlessly broke) artist at his heart, and you can't help but root for him on his travels, even though anyone who is familiar with Van Ronk's criminally overlooked status in music history knows how this story is going to play out. That the film concentrates on the events of only one lively week for Davis only reinforces the long, frustrating creative road that he traveled throughout his lifetime.


Of course, this film is also a heartfelt snapshot of a quiet folk music scene that is about to change drastically with the arrival of Bob Dylan (played by Benjamin Pike, who shows up inconspicuously at the very end of the movie). Nearly every scene shot around Greenwich Village looks like they could be outtakes from the cold streets featured on the cover The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan.

Inside Llewyn Davis: A near-perfect mix of music and message

The tight-knit but competitive folk music community is definitely a quaint, coffeehouse niche scene at the point caught in the film. But that scene and its distinctive folky sounds are going to get plenty of unexpected exposure and be shared with a much wider audience with the appearance of the gravelly-voiced young songwriter from the Iron Range of Minnesota.

In fact, the end of the film pays homage to Robert Shelton's glowing New York Times review of Dylan's show at Gerde's Folk City, a watershed moment that would eventually lead Dylan to stardom and the intimate Greenwich Village folk scene that nurtured him to national and worldwide exposure. But Inside Llewyn Davis captures the calm before that monumental storm, and the struggles of a young artist who is desperate to get his voice and his songs heard. Davis remains fiercely reluctant to play the creative game that is required of him at the time, which ultimately cost him the wider audience and attention that his compelling songs deserved.

The Coens once again partnered with the talented Oscar- and Grammy-winning T Bone Burnett, rekindling their fruitful creative partnership that was so successful on O Brother, Where Art Thou? Burnett serves as executive music producer on the film along with associate music producer Marcus Mumford (who is married to one of the film's stars, Carey Mulligan). Their association (along with an understated role by Justin Timberlake) injects the film with a raw, honest authenticity and originality that is lacking in most movies that are centered on music or the creative life.

Anyone who is genuinely interested in the New York folk music scene of the '60s that cultivated the career of Bob Dylan and many others will enjoy and cherish Inside Llewyn Davis. And those who are drawn to stories about the frustrating isolation and insecurity involved in any type of creative endeavor or live performance will draw plenty of inspiration from this subtly moving, elegant work of cinema by Joel and Ethan Coen.

Inside Llewyn Davis opens Friday at the Uptown Theatre on Friday, December 20. There's a pre-screening at 7:30 p.m. at the Lagoon on Thursday, December 19. Here is info on how to download the passes, click here. Enter code CITY39M6.

See Also:
The 10 best Twin Cities punk albums of 2013
The 10 best Minnesota singles of 2013
The 10 best Twin Cities rap albums of 2013

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