It's the music that moves 'Inside Llewyn Davis'
One of the most beguiling folk records of the year has the bonus of ferrying along a Joel and Ethan Coen plot line. The songs within the brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis move from balladry to blues to ancient British folk, adding a layer of lyricism and revealing a portal to another storytelling realm.
The selections and performances highlight a moment when a perfectly realized stanza sung honestly in a smoky cafe could produce an audible gasp, reverberate throughout New York's Greenwich Village and, with luck or if your name were Bob Dylan, American culture.
At the center of the story, set in 1961, is the singer Llewyn Davis, an expert but oft-unlikable artist, and a few pivotal performances, most significantly of "Hang Me, Oh Hang Me," made prominent by Dave Van Ronk, whose memoir The Mayor of MacDougal Street and Inside Dave Van Ronk album cover supplied many period details for the Coens' story. "Hang Me," the most recent of a series of songs the Coens have plucked from relative obscurity to create fresh filmic moments, is sung from the perspective of a rebel who "went up to the mountain, that's where I made my stand" and, having apparently failed, is bound for the noose.
Even more than the Coens' ode to country music, O Brother Where Art Thou, whose protagonists fall into the music business by happenstance, Inside Llewyn Davis examines an occupation - singing and songwriting - with wry affection. Joel Coen said during a recent conversation that the movie, on which they collaborated with music producer T Bone Burnett, is the product of "a funny conversation that we've been having with T Bone for decades, from project to project, starting with The Big Lebowski."
As such, it's a revelatory, loving and sometimes absurd look at the life of the musician, with a curated playlist starring actor-singers Oscar Isaac, Justin Timberlake, Carey Mulligan and others. Moving in unison with the action during sets and sessions, the music scores his circular journey from Greenwich Village to Chicago and back again.
The Coens' precise touch is captured, for example, in a notable absence: a spectral Bob Dylan, then a freshman on the scene whose arrival and impending fame are only suggested. At the beginning, we briefly hear him tuning his guitar onstage, but the Coens are following another singer, so the action moves elsewhere. That single shot teases a big American story developing just outside the frame: the tune-up to a whole movement that Dylan would help construct.
Such deftness isn't surprising. The Coens' best musical placements are memorable: There's the rollicking theme that chases Nicolas Cage's H.I. McDunnough through Raising Arizona. Lower East Side folk punks the Fugs' biting protest song "CIA Man" closes Burn After Reading; the scratchy "Danny Boy" recording that bellows from a Victrola in Miller's Crossing scores an Albert Finney machine-gun shootout.
Memorably, The Big Lebowski resurrected an obscure psychedelic rock song, "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)," turning it into a stoner anthem after it scored the Dude's bowling-themed dream sequence. O Brother, another Burnett-produced effort, featured the fictional Soggy Bottom Boys' rendition of "Man of Constant Sorrow." It played a key role in that soundtrack going platinum - more than half a century after the song's presumed heyday.
"The conversation expands in really interesting ways once we get T Bone involved in it," Joel Coen said. "He gets into the story, or the script, or whatever project we're working on, and takes it in places musically that we wouldn't have thought of, or didn't know about, and opens up all of these interesting things."
In Llewyn Davis, music levitates the story. As Davis, played by Isaac, travels from Upper West Side to Village with an escaped cat that will come to haunt him, the song "Fare Thee Well (Dink's Song)" plays, suggesting a few different journeys to come. Joel Coen said such placements came naturally and were part of the fabric of the script early on. The desire was to suggest, without being heavy-handed.
"You're thinking about both what the song is lyrically," he said, "but what's the vibe of the song? What's the mood of it, even the tempo? What does it need here? We didn't want things to be right on the nose, but sometimes they were lyrically related in interesting ways to what was happening."