If you already know about the “folk scare” of the 1960s, when groups like Peter, Paul & Mary and the Kingston Trio swept the country, you’ll be delighted by the insider references of the Coen Brothers’ splendid, touching, darkly comic new film, “Inside Llewyn Davis,” which tells the story of a Greenwich Village folk singer at a crossroads.
Davis, whose story, if not his rather unpleasant personality, is based on the late singer Dave Van Ronk. At one point, when he auditions at a famous Chicago folk club, he warms up by fingerpicking a guitar lick from “Cocaine,” one of Van Ronk’s signature songs. Perfect.
But if all that blows over your head like wind through a harmonica, you will still enjoy this film, because it’s not “about” folk music. It’s about a sensitive, confused young man in desperate pain, negotiating an identity crisis during an important moment in American cultural history.
Having just lost his singing partner, Davis is grieving, trying to face the prospect of life on his own. A perennial loser, he’s sleeping on other peoples’ couches, alienated from his disapproving family in Queens, feckless in love and so angry he habitually offends the very people who could help him, including a sympathetic college professor and his wife and their pompous, early-music-loving friend. To dramatize these flaws, the Coens use a comic leitmotif involving a cat, about which to say more would spoil the film.
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When we first meet Davis, he’s getting a knuckle sandwich in an alley, which hardly seems fair till the end of the film, which deftly makes you care about a guy who roundly deserved that punch.
One of its other triumphs is how believable Oscar Isaac is — both as an actor and as a musician. Even T Bone Burnett, the film’s executive music producer, was astonished to find someone who could act and sing and play guitar in equal measure. From Tom Paxton’s bittersweet anthem, “The Last Thing On My Mind,” to Van Ronk’s other signature, “Dink’s Song,” the music in this movie is a pure delight.
And thanks to Burnett and the Coens, who know a thing or two about American music (remember “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”), the film is faithful to the period. The club where many of the scenes take place, the Gaslight (which really was a Village folk spot) features hard-bitten hipsters like Davis but also squares in collegiate sweaters singing barbershop harmonies; an Appalachian lady strumming an autoharp; and a sincere and sappy soldier, Troy (based on Paxton). That’s the way those clubs were.
The rest of the cast is excellent, particularly John Goodman as a caustic, scary jazzbo; Garrett Hedlund as his dazed driver, Johnny Five, who quotes Allen Ginsberg’s lover, Peter Orlovsky; and Justin Timberlake, altogether credible as the male half of the actual folk-singing duo Jim and Jean from the period. Carey Mulligan plays Jean, with whom Llewyn has had a relationship that figures in the plot.
One small aspect that doesn’t feel quite right is how the film occasionally turns shadowy and sinister. This is, of course, a Coen Brothers signature and I have a good idea why it’s there, even if it doesn’t fit. Because 1961 wasn’t just a pivotal year for the fictional Llewyn Davis, it was a juncture when America was beginning to move out of the dark and paranoid McCarthy-drenched ’50s into the more optimistic, utopian ’60s.
When, at the end of the film, a real-life iconic figure emerges onstage at the Gaslight who will become an agent (and a symbol) of that change, it’s clear the Coens have this cultural shift in mind.
But they overdo the darkness. Never enough to spoil a solid, thoroughly enjoyable film, but just a bit.
Paul de Barros (206-464-3247 or firstname.lastname@example.org) covers music at blogs.seattletimes.com/soundposts/ or follow him on Twitter @pdebarros