Saturday, January 4, 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis (film)

Inside Llewyn Davis
Written and directed by Joel & Ethan Coen

As I noted in my review of the film’s soundtrack last month, “I’ve been looking forward to Inside Llewyn Davis, the new Coen Brothers film ever since I heard the rumor that it would be based on The Mayor of MacDougal Street, the posthumous memoir of my late friend Dave Van Ronk that was completed by Elijah Wald.”

The film covers a week or so in the life of Greenwich Village folksinger Llewyn Davis in early-1961.

Now, having seen the film, I can report mixed feelings. Although I was a decade or so too young to have experienced that scene at that time (I got to the folk scene in Montreal as a teenager in the late-1960s and first visited Greenwich Village folk clubs in 1974 when I would have been about the same age Bob Dylan was when he arrived in ‘61), I’ve known a lot of the musicians who were there at the time and many of them are friends I’ve had extensive conversations about that time with.

So, if I detach myself from what I know of that scene and of the people who were there, I can say that I enjoyed the movie as a dark exploration of a frustrated, self-centered folksinger suffering an existential crisis. God knows I’ve seen any number of musicians and non-musicians go through such crises over the past 40 years or so. That depiction, acted so well by Oscar Isaac as Llewyn Davis, was compelling to watch.

I also enjoyed the depictions of Folkways Records (Legacy Records in the movie) and its legendary founder Moe Asch (Mel Novikoff in the movie) and of Albert Grossman (Bud Grossman in the movie) who really did run a folk club called the Gate of Horn in Chicago before coming to New York. I also quite liked the scene where Llewyn shows up at the seamen’s union trying to ship out again with the Merchant Marine. I’ve heard stories directly from Dave Van Ronk that make those scenes seem very authentic.

But, early on, it becomes obvious that Llewyn Davis is not Dave Van Ronk and is no Dave Van Ronk. By 1961, Dave was already established on the Village folk scene as a central and influential artist. He did not bounce from couch to couch like Llewyn; rather he and his first wife Terri Thal provided indigent folksingers – like the young Bob Dylan – with a couch to sleep on. Dave also did not drive – which Llewyn does – and I can’t imagine him exploding at benefactors or at a fellow performer the way Llewyn does. Throughout the film, Llewyn has a chip on his shoulder that’s bigger than himself and that too wasn’t Dave.

Llewyn Davis explodes at a request to play a song in a social setting declaring he’s a professional; that he should only sing for payment. Most folksingers I’ve known have been people who are driven to sing and play music. It’s not just what they do or did on stage, it’s a way of life. They derive joy in playing music for the sake of playing music. Some of the best music I’ve ever heard has been off stage, late at night – including some of the best music I’ve ever heard Dave Van Ronk play.

This did not seem to be a folk scene that included the Sunday afternoon gatherings in Washington Square Park or at Izzy Young’s Folklore Center. Llewyn and the other musicians did not seem obsessed with the history of music and the musicians that came before them. Dave Van Ronk, Bob Dylan and so many others on that scene were intent on soaking those things up.

The character Troy Nelson – a soldier stationed at Fort Dix who came to the Village to play music when he could – was obviously inspired by the young Tom Paxton. Troy even sings “The Last Thing On My Mind,” Tom’s best-known song, as his own. But, just as Llewyn Davis is decidedly not my friend Dave Van Ronk, Troy Nelson bears little resemblance to my friend Tom Paxton. Tom is smart, witty, funny and generous. I just can’t imagine him as the dumb country bumpkin that the character Troy is.

I do think it is a good movie. I’m a fan of the Coen Brothers and really like what they do on film. However, as a portrayal of a scene and of people I know personally, too much of it doesn’t ring true for me. For more about that from someone who was there have a look at the article Terri Thal wrote for the Village Voice.

And for a really good description of the film’s time and place, read Dave’s memoir, The Mayor of MacDougal Street.

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--Mike Regenstreif


  1. As you know, Mike, I "grew up" in that basement on MacDougal Street. I was a little disappointed in their representation of the Gaslight in that the original was long, narrow and very dingy. There was one scene that was very clearly filmed at the top of the stairs at 116 Macdougal, the very ones I walked down dozens of times.

    The movie worked for me primarily because I'd seen the previews a number of times and was able to view it right from the start knowing that the main character did not resemble Van Ronk in any way, shape, or form.

  2. This is an important point.

    The movie has gotten a decent amount of coverage here in Montreal, enough that I assume it's because it's a Coen Brothers film.

    But at least one review told the story literally, and it's not clear if they thought it was a real depiction of Dave Van Ronk, or were just relaying what happened in the movie. "A not so successful folk singer who stayed on people's couches".

    That sounded like Bob Dylan in the early days, and I never thought Dave Van Ronk was "not so successful". So it's hard to tell what reviewers are thinking. The fact that it is based on the book is countered by it being loosely based on the book. If they'd just made a generic movie about that period, it might have been a better idea.

    I'm sure I saw Dave Van Ronk at the Golem in the early eighties, during that period when I was attending quite a bit.