Inside Llewyn Davis
Directed by Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Written by Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
Executive Music Producer: T-Bone Burnett
Associate Music Producer: Marcus Mumford
Oscar Isaac – Llewyn Davis
Carey Mulligan – Jean Berkey
Justin Timberlake – Jim Berkey
Stark Sands – Troy Nelson
Adam Driver – Al Cody
Michael Rosner – Arlen Gamble
John Goodman – Roland Turner
Garrett Hedlund – Johnny Five
F. Murray Abraham – Bud Grossman
Ethan Philips – Mitch Gorfein
Robin Bartlett – Lillian Gorfein
This is a late review, as I didn’t catch it till it hit our second-run community cinema. The “Music Time Machine” parlour game lets you fantasize on being in the Cavern Club watching The Beatles in 1962, or watching Buddy Holly the night before he died, or at Southampton Guildhall watching David Bowie start the Hunky Dory tour (hang on a minute … I was actually at that one). In this case, the time machine lands you at The Gaslight in Greenwich Village in 1961, just as Bob Dylan arrives (that’s the last two minutes of the film).
I found it fascinating, because I was interested in the era of Greenwich Village folk which it recreates so well. I’ve had curmudgeonly, scrounging, self-centred folk singers sleep on my couch. My companion found it dull because she didn’t recognize who anyone was supposed to be. Dull, slow, depressing was her verdict. I liked it very much. There is a touch of who’s being who throughout which is mildly irritating as it detracts from the story if you find yourself trying to work it out, but Dave Van Ronk recorded Inside Dave Van Ronk with a similar sleeve design,and the Coens have said “Llewyn is not all Dave Van Ronk but the music is.” Van Ronk’s Green, Green Rocky Road is sung by Oscar Isaac in the film, and the original version winds up the credits and audio CD.
Shall we get the surmises out of the way? Not one is a direct correlation of course. I admired the fact that they went for the ‘spirit’ of the originals, but made no attempt to go for lookalikes apart from those seen only singing: The Clancy Brothers and Bob Dylan. And with the Clancys, the sweaters do the job for you. Bud Grossman looks nothing like Albert Grossman, and is a lot older for starters. If Carey Mulligan as Jean Berkey sings like Mary Travers, she looks almost opposite.
But aspects of these were “borrowed” to help the story.
Llewyn Davis then for Dave Van Ronk.
Arlen Gamble is for Moe Asch who ran Folkways Records
Jim and Jean Berkey sing 500 Miles, and they need a third person, so bits of Peter, Paul & Mary
Al Cody is a Jewish cowboy, like Ramblin’ Jack Elliot
Troy Nelson sings Tom Paxton’s best known song, though I never imagined Paxton like this.
Johnny Five is Dean Moriaty from On The Road. The trip to Chicago echoes On The Road.
Roland Turner has some aspects of Doc Pomus and Dr John (both carried silver-topped canes), but that’s only in bits (like the voodoo threat) and Goodman is a jazz musician, and does not attempt a Louisiana accent.
Bud Grossman is Peter, Paul & Mary’s manager, Albert Grossman, soon to be Dylan’s manager.
The group Llewyn calls “Four Micks” are The Clancy Brothers with Tommy Makem. And when asked what he likes about them, replies ‘The sweaters.’
Llewyn Davis auditions for Bud Grossman in Chicago
The depressing aspect is that Llewyn is a Jonah (not that he manages to get his old job as a sailor back!). He brings trouble and bad luck with him. It’s a wintry New York and Chicago. The skies are grey. The film is all dull browns, tans and greys. It’s a cold, murky smoky world. He’s a bit of a bastard. He crashes on couches. He borrows money and bums cigarettes. There’s the abortion problem with Jean (though the resolution of that, as he realizes it wasn’t necessarily him, was funny). Then he stays with the wealthy elderly Gorfeins (Dylan mentions staying with wealthy fans) and loses their cat. He’s nasty-tempered when Mrs Gorfein tries to sing his dead partner’s harmony part. He is a deeply nasty heckler for the poor woman from Arkansas with an auto-harp, for which he gets beaten up in a Moebius Loop bit of plotting … the same scene starts and ends the film.
The “wrong cat” bit of the story (lose cat, find cat, it’s not the right cat, run over cat and feel guilty, real cat appears) is extremely creaky. It appears in a Richmal Crompton Just William story from the 1930s, it’s a classic urban legend, it’s been turned into a joke, I’ve used it myself in an ELT story, and it’s done best of all in the stage play The Lieutenant of Inishmore. I thought that was an ancient plotline to run right through and hang the story on. The Lieutenant of Inishmore had a trained cat that did rehearsed stuff. I didn’t think you could train a cat, but they did. This one was pretty good and is not credited on IMDB, though I’d bet they had more than one.
I liked the music business in-jokes and asides, such as Llewyn taking cash for the hilarious Please Mr Kennedy session, which turns out to be a big hit.
Stark Sands, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake sing 500 Miles
The musical performances are excellent throughout and all the actors acquit themselves well as singers, as does the singer, Justin Timberlake, at acting. He’s doing a lot of that now, so perhaps career switching. I loved The Death of Queen Jane as done brilliantly by Oscar Isaac. My companion says she enjoyed the music bits most of all and would have liked more.
When they play the record that Llewyn made with the partner who jumped off the George Washington Bridge, it’s the voice of Marcus Mumford duetting with Isaac. Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan do a very good 500 Miles. The Dylan bit at the end is an unreleased outtake by Bob himself. I’m going to get the soundtrack album.
A footnote on names. Llewelyn is a common Welsh name. I’ve never heard Llewyn. Did the Coens make it up? We know people invent odd spellings for stage names. Did Llewyn make it up? There is a joke about Al Cody when Llewyn sees an envelope addressed to his real name. They are playing with names. Jean and Jim Berkey. I’ve never seen the name Berkey, but it sounds like Berkeley which is a name, and also makes you think of the California university, thus giving them their serious student air. But it also sounds like “berk” which is (at least) British English and allegedly comes from Cockney rhyming slang, “Berkeley Hunt.” You say the first word. Your meaning is a rhyme with the second unsaid word. I’m sure they know that. The record boss, Arlen Gamble … never met anyone called ‘gamble’ and for a record label owner that veers a bit too far to Pilgrims Progress allegorical naming.