For almost the entire year of 2013, there has been beyond incredible hype and buzz about the new Coen Brothers film, Inside Llewyn Davis, and how it is loosely based on the life of singer and guitarist Dave Van Ronk, through the book The Mayor of MacDougal Street written with Elijah Wald.
Let’s get one thing straight. This film is not about Dave Van Ronk. It uses Van Ronk’s repertoire and certain facts and stories to tell the story of this basically loser folksinger who goes nowhere. Or maybe it’s the story of the cat that gets out of an Upper West Side apartment and then comes back, just like in the song “The Cat Came Back.”
Now the Coen Brothers say they like the music of that time and wanted to make a film about it. They enlisted the considerable talents of T-Bone Burnett to make sure the music was right, which he did.
But then they concocted one of the most preposterous story lines to go with it, about this guy wandering around, knocking women up, abortions that didn’t happen and abortions that are about to happen in a way that didn’t happen in 1962. Davis crashes from couch to couch, sometimes with this escaped cat, goes to Chicago, auditions for an Albert Grossman (Bob Dylan’s manager seen in the film Dont Look Back) comes back, obnoxiously yells at someone onstage (apparently based on folksinger Jean Ritchie), and gets the shit beat out of him as a young Bob Dylan takes the stage. That’s it.
As Dave Van Ronk’s ex-wife (and an even earlier Bob Dylan manager) Teri Thal pointed out in an excellent article in the Village Voice, the apartments are too clean. The hair is also a little longer than it should be for 1962.
Now for one thing Dave Van Ronk and Teri Thal had an apartment, and a lot of aspiring folksingers and other people crashed on their couch. Dave Van Ronk was this big burly guy with this gruff voice that could also be gruffly sweet was an intense performer, with an immaculate finger-picking guitar style and an incredible repertoire of blues (not delta blues), old jazz songs, traditional folk songs and whatever else including songs by contemporary songwriters he felt like singing. He was extremely well read, highly political, with a wonderful sense of humor and everything about him demonstrated a unique brilliance. None of that is in the character of Llewyn Davis.
The film wastes a lot of time on nothing. There’s a long trip to Chicago with John Goodman playing some character loosely based on Doc Pomus and some silent driver who may or not be a poet. In Chicago he auditions for an Albert Grossman type character, but the song he plays, the Child ballad, “The Death of Queen Jane” no one would have done for an audition. And there’s an equally long trip back.
The film doesn’t explore what was behind people playing this music. It’s all on the surface with token nods to various people from the Clancy Brothers to John Hammond and of course Bob Dylan.
That said, Oscar Issac gives an excellent performance of whatever character he’s supposed to play. He nailed some of Van Ronk’s guitar arrangements (though Van Ronk did not use a flat pick) and while he sings nothing like Van Ronk, he puts a lot of feel and soul into his vocals. Occasionally there’s some great shots and scenes, but it doesn’t capture the feel of what Greenwich Village was like and it doesn’t capture the feel of the music.
If you want to know about Dave Van Ronk, get his records and apparently because of this film they’re all being reissued. Get Folksinger which long has been coupled with the album Inside, get Just Dave Van Ronk or No Dirty Names or a great compilation from several albums called A Chrestomathy. As for Inside Llewyn Davis, one can easily wait for it to come on cable TV or some other medium. It’s occasionally humorous insignificant fluff that doesn’t come anywhere near the heart of its apparent subject matter and ends up being a film about nothing.
Peter Stone Brown is a freelance writer and singer-songwriter. His site and blog can be found here: http://www.peterstonebrown.com/