Insight of Sorts into Inside Llewyn Davis

Had me a very cultural weekend. Went to see Charles Bradley and his Extraordinaires supported by Simi Stone at the Bearsville Theater Friday night. Read David Remnick’s 17,000 word profile on President Obama in the New Yorker – and caught up on many other New Yorkers stories too. Listened to my new Neutral Milk Hotel archive vinyl box set, signed by Jeff Mangum, as purchased at a silent auction fund-raiser a week ago to help with medical bills for the founder of Woodstock’s vegan Garden Café: also enjoyed the Charles Bradley LP I picked up on vinyl at Friday’s gig; and am impressed by Jake Buggs new Rick Rubin-produced album, Shangri La, at least thus far.

But the cultural highlight was finally getting to see the Coen Brothers’ new movie, Inside Llewyn Davies. I go to the cinema about once a year, but the word has been so positive on this movie that I’ve taken to checking our Tinker Street Cinema’s weekly listings, wondering what was holding them back from booking the obvious. I wasn’t the only one; Sunday’s matinee showing was as busy as I’ve ever seen the place. If it’s hardly surprising that a somewhat fictional movie set in the New York City folk scene of 1960-61 should draw a large, older audience in Woodstock, a famously folky village where it sometimes seems like half that generation has ended up, rest assured that you don’t need a background in Dylanomics to appreciate Inside Llewyn Davis for what it is: an incredibly well made, wry, sweet, frequently depressing yet bitterly funny feature drama. So while the trailer below features thinly veiled caricatures of Tom Paxton, Ian and Sylvia, Albert Grossman, and Dylan himself, and while the movie additionally portrays people very much based on Moe Asch, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, John Mitchell, John Hammond and others whose names may only be familiar to those of us who have written entire chapters about this period for large books about the New York City music scene, there are many other unspecific stereotypes of Beatniks, squares, all manner of absurdly dated folk singers and performers, along with an Upper West Side Columbia University professor and his wife whose positive demeanor (and perpetually spare couch) sets them at odds with the selfishness and poverty of the Village scene. I wasn’t certain that the captivating John Goodman cameo parodies anyone other than the narcissistic and thoroughly nasty old jazz musician he plays himself as. Hell, even Justin Timberlake comes out of it well.

Much has been made, at least according to the reviews that I have read, of the Llewyn Davis character being based on Dave Van Ronk. It’s true that Van Ronk pre-dated Dylan, that he could be a loud-mouth, and he got thrown out of the Village bars and baskethouses on more than one occasion, all per Davis; it’s also true that Van Ronk’s talents as a folk singer and composer were ultimately limited. (Oh, and that in 1962, he released an LP entitled Inside Dave Van Ronk.) But Van Ronk had a generosity of spirit, a tendency towards action, and a sense of humor that are all frustratingly absent from Oscar Isaac’s portrayal of the title character. They didn’t call Van Ronk The Mayor of MacDougal Street for nothing. And as noted in All Hopped Up and Ready To Go, when Dylan came to New York City that same snowy winter as in the movie, it was Van Ronk gave the new-comer his first gig, a place to stay; it was Van Ronk’s wife, Terri Thal, who served as Dylan’s first manager.

And so, enjoy playing “spot-the-reference.” It’s definitely part of the movie’s appeal. But don’t get too hung up on that aspect. Inside Llewyn Davis is a sly work of fiction set in a scene that was factual. Most importantly, it’s a damn great movie. I’m glad to see that by coincidence, it’s just been released in the UK. Go see it at first opportunity. Just be ready to skip the soundtrack.

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2 Comment(s)

  1. future landfill

    29 January, 2014 at 6:39 pm

    Is there a Fred Neil tune in the soundtrack? Sad state of affairs if the Coens and T-Bone neglected one of the seminal artists of the period, not to mention being a cranky, elusive character that surely would have served as a contributing model for Llewyn Davis.

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    16 November, 2021 at 7:16 am

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