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Film Review

Inside Llewyn Davis

America always had a rich store of traditional folk songs, originally Anglo Irish in origin, and later as a legacy of slavery, black work songs and spirituals. These songs were best preserved in the South and the Appalachian regions, and were extensively recorded or transcribed by folklore scholars in the 1920's and 30's. John Lomax in particular was an important pioneer in this effort. But few urban dwellers, especially whites, were familiar with these traditions until the very late 1950's and early 60's. In the late 1950's, groups like Peter Paul & Mary, The Kingston Trio, Simon & Garfunkel, The Weavers, and others, began singing these traditional songs in a popular style. These groups initially had a fairly limited audience but they became much more popular in the early 60's. However a second group of folk singers, mostly solo, like Judy Collins, Joan Baez, Odetta, and later, Bob Dylan, also sang traditional songs but began to write their own material, with a much rawer style, often unaccompanied, that addressed the social issues of the time. The increasingly turbulent political climate of the 1960's, especially the Vietnam War and the civil rights struggle, were a powerful catalyst to singers who began to write their own lyrics, often with a social or political protest theme . The clearest example is Bob Dylan, whose lyrics are powerful, and some say, unsurpassed (i.e. Masters of War, Blowing in the Wind). By the mid 1960's, traditional folk songs had taken a back seat to the new protest songs. These new social protest songs fueled countless rallies and ultimately were one of the factors that helped mobilize sentiment against the war in Vietnam.

Joel and Ethan Coen, Minnesota brothers, have made a number of fine films that often look at regional America or rework older stories: "Barton Fink" (1991), "Fargo" (1996), " Brother, Where Art Thou" (2000), "No Country for Old Men" (2007), "A Serious Man" (2009), and "True Grit" (2010). They have always had a strong interest in American music (as seen in "Brother, Where Art Thou") and became interested in that period when American folk music changed to social protest. Their latest, "Inside Llewyn Davis", is loosely modeled after the life of Dave Van Ronk, a legendary Greenwich Village musician who did much to promote folk and blues, and helped upcoming new musicians, such as Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. Oscar Isaac, singer and actor, plays Llewyn Davis, a feckless young folk singer whose music partner is no longer with him, for reasons that are revealed later. He is really struggling, no money, sleeping on friends' couches, and playing in the few folk clubs then in existence such as the Gaslight Cafe, a Greenwich Village club that was one of the centers for folk music. Davis is sometimes not such a nice guy (unlike Van Ronk), but has a beautiful voice and is a good guitar player. Isaac plays all his own songs in this film, traditional folk songs. One morning something happens, concerning a cat, as he is leaving a friend's apartment. And thus begins an odyssey that will take him on a nearly surreal road trip to Chicago and perhaps back into the Merchant Marine (like Van Ronk). The Coens portray the New York folk scene well, and it brings back lots of memories of Judy Collins (my favorite) in Boulder when I was in college outside of Denver. The various and sometimes zany characters are beautifully played by a lot of talent, such as John Goodman (a blues musician), Carey Mulligan (his ex girlfriend and stand in for Mary in PP&M), Justin Timberlake (a folk singer), F. Murray Abraham (a Chicago club owner), and others. Even minor characters are memorable and the folk club scenes will be familiar to most who were in college then. Like all of the Coens' films, the cinematography is outstanding, from the dark club interiors to Washington Square to the road trip and back. There are so many good scenes but one in particular was haunting: Davis playing for his dying father in a nursing home.

But it is the music of "Inside Llewyn Davis" that is the real principal character. Isaac sings many of Van Ronk's songs, which here are mainly Anglo Irish ballads. But as a club owner says to him, "I don't see the money in it". There is a sweet elegiac tone to this film, as one tradition is being replaced by something new. And in one of the last scenes, another performer follows Davis, and we recognize him immediately as the something new. Davis is the personification of all the now largely forgotten folk singers in the early 1960's who never made it. This is a lovely film that brought back so many good memories, but too short at 104 minutes. I wished the music would never stop (in every sense). Just opened widely, including at the Embarcadero, the Kabuki, and the Empire in San Francisco.

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