INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS directed by Ethan & Joel Coen (USA, 2013)
Dave Van Ronk is to Bob Dylan what Antonio Salieri was to Mozart. Salieri was popular during his lifetime but his music is rarely performed now.
Van Ronk was a prominent performer in the Greenwich Village during the 1960s but is not so widely known now. Mozart’s genius is now taken for granted and despite having “a voice like sand and glue” (to borrow David Bowie’s words) Dylan is the most influential singer songwriter of all time.
Van Ronk had a pretty good voice, some decent songs but, until now, has been confined to a footnote in the folk history books; a nearly man popular only among purists. Ironically, his standing may now be reassessed following the Coen Brothers movie even though this is not billed as a bio-pic and the depiction of a struggling artist is far from glamorous.
In musical terms, the similarities between Llewyn Davis and Van Ronk are obvious but it’s unlikely that Van Ronk was as socially inept as Davis. In fact, by all accounts, Van Ronk was a genial guy who was admired and well liked by his peers. Mr Zimmerman himself has paid tribute to him.
It would have been very easy for the Coen Brothers to go for cheap laughs and portray Llewyn Davis as a talentless hick. Instead, Oscar Isaac in the title role is a good singer and looks every inch the penniless poet. It leaves it to the viewers to make their minds up as to why he never makes it big.
Cat lovers will argue that he deserves what he gets for being so careless and selfish in his treatment of the ginger toms who become his temporary travelling companions. Others may point to his character flaws and unwillingness to compromise. But equally, Dylan was not always Mr.Genial and certainly is not the kind to follow the whims of fashion (I don’t know where he stands vis-à-vis our feline friends!).
What rings true in the movie is the way it illustrates how fine, and fickle, the line is between fame and failure. The luckless Davis moves from pillar to post (sleeping on sofas along the way) vainly seeking his big break. He is in the right place, at the right time but, far from being a voice of a generation, he is destined to be just another nobody stuck at first base. The opening and closing scenes of the movie mirror one another to show how his career path progresses in ever decreasing circles.
The reconstruction of the sixties folk scene is predictably masterly and the magic touch of T Bone Burnett ensures the music is rightly placed at the centre of the plot. The is billed as comedy-drama but is more sad than funny and noteworthy for the genuine affection for the period.
I loved this movie. Where would we be without the Coen Brothers?