'Inside Llewyn Davis' is the latest film by the Coen Brothers and is set during the early 60s. It tells the story of a folk singer called Llewyn Davis as he struggles to make it in the Greenwich Village folk scene. It is a film about continuing to endure even when everything is stacked against you and it is more importantly, the best film about cats you will ever see.
The film throws in several references to the establishments that proved so influential in the lives of the many folk singers who dominated the Greenwich Village scene. As such, the Gaslight Café features prominently in the film and indeed, a little known (at that point) singer who is humorously referred to as 'Young Bob' in the end credits is heard in the distance when Llewyn Davis leaves the Café at the beginning of the film and features at the end of the film. The film is structured around this one sequence at the Gaslight Café in 1961, which is a springboard for one of the two performers and effectively, potentially the last stand of the other performer. The Kettle of Fish is also featured. This was another venue where folk performers sang located in the same building as the Gaslight Café.
In many respects, Llewyn Davis' life bears more than a little resemblance to Dylan's early life. Dylan in his early years was known to crash at various friends' apartments, borrowing records and generally not settling down. But if we consider the fact that many of the Greenwich Village venues did not pay a regular wage to their performers and instead, after each set the performers handed around a hat or basket in the hope that the audience would give them enough money to survive, it is not surprising that many singer/songwriters were poor. Another parallel concerns Llewyn Davis' decision to take part as a session musician for an appalling novelty song with a slight protest angle called 'Please Mr Kennedy' requesting that he not be sent into space and to take a one off payment for his work rather than royalties. The difference being that Dylan's session work enabled him to make further contacts even where the financial recuperation was minimal.
In many respects, this film offers a darker view of the folk scene than the stories that are fed into the mainstream culture. Regularly, one is led to believe that the folk scene was all sweetness and light. Handholding and community singing. Beautiful people singing their traditional songs and songs that they had adapted from these songs. This film reveals a world where singer/songwriters are regularly doomed to produce one song, which is subsequently deleted and forgotten. Llewyn Davis is a victim of this situation, one part of a group that disbanded not through internal battles but because his partner had committed suicide. He is stuck with the product of this union, a song called 'If We Had Wings' (adapted to 'If I Had Wings' when he sings this song alone in the Gaslight Café) and is struggling frantically to be accepted as a solo artist that Bud Grossman deems as 'uncommercial' after hearing one of his songs (Bud Grossman is almost Albert Grossman, who later became Dylan's producer). The failures in the folk scene are rarely mentioned unless their failure is linked to drug abuse or decadent acts. Indeed, the sadness that pervades this film stems from that fact. Who remembers you when you are no longer popular?
As an aside about this film, you cannot consider it outside of the context of the cats that cross the path of Llewyn Davis. If ever, there is an animal that symbolises his character, it's a cat. The cat represents his fickle nature and his promiscuity. It also acts as a substitute child for him. The effort he makes to find cats at various points in the film is touching. Also he hits a cat at one point by accident and he leaves the car to find the cat. In the saddest sequence, he witnesses the cat as it leaves the road and crawls into some trees, presumably to recover or to die in peace. He returns to the car.
'Inside Llewyn Davis' is a film about karma, fate, failure and struggling to succeed. Llewyn Davis has an inflated sense of his own self importance highlighted during the scene when he heckles another performer finally aware that he is marking time and doesn't have enough material to truly impact upon the scene. His relationship with Jean played by Carey Mulligan who screams that he should wear 'double condoms' to prevent any other woman from getting pregnant is revealed to have been one of many relationships which has gone wrong. He is not a bad person, just a victim of his own ambitions. He suffers because he makes others suffer. It's a film to see for a view of the 60s which is not tainted by the illusions of 'Flower Power' and the cosy idealism regularly associated with the folk scene. If you have never felt like Llewyn Davis, you have never lived.
Barry Watt - 26th January 2014.
'Inside Llewyn Davis' is in all good cinemas now. The Coen Brothers have another hit on their hand.