Coen brothers back on song with folk tale
Musical crossroads … Oscar Isaac as Llewyn Davis. Photo: Supplied
What if a folk singer got beat up outside a Greenwich Village nightclub in 1961?
Six, seven or, maybe, eight years ago, as Joel Coen remembers it, that seemingly idle question about an unlucky singer in a hypothetical encounter at what used to be a real club called Gerde's Folk City started bothering Coen, who writes and directs off-centre movies with his brother, Ethan.
Next week, some music industry insiders, and perhaps a few potential buyers, will finally see the resulting film at a private, pre-Grammys screening in Los Angeles.
It is called Inside Llewyn Davis. It promises to be quintessential Coen brothers fare - but different. For starters, as Joel Coen explained, Inside Llewyn Davis has a certain kinship with Les Miserables.
In it almost all the principal actors - Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake - sing. ''There are lots of duets and trios,'' Coen said.
While not quite a musical, he added, Inside Llewyn Davis is built around full-length performances of folk songs that were heard in the grubby cafes of the Village in a year when Bob Dylan, who sort of shows up in the movie, had just appeared on the scene.
As for plot, Coen said there isn't quite as much as is usual for the brothers, who in the past have written and directed elaborate crime stories like Fargo and No Country for Old Men. This time they present the travails, over roughly two weeks, of a struggling folk singer, Llewyn Davis, who is portrayed by Isaac.
For the record, Davis doesn't really resemble, or sound like, Dave Van Ronk, whose posthumous 2005 memoir, The Mayor of Macdougal Street, written with Elijah Wald, served as source material for the film.
''The character is not at all Dave, but the music is,'' said Wald, who spoke after having been given an early look at the film with Van Ronk's widow, Andrea Vuocolo Van Ronk.
He said he did not know for years that the Coens were behind an option for film rights to the book, which he based on Dave Van Ronk's reminiscences, compiling them after his death in 2002. Wald had spent years listening to Van Ronk's stories and got some pages from him before he died but otherwise did the writing.
Wald said he ''thoroughly enjoyed'' the movie. But he cautioned that the world of Inside Llewyn Davis, having been devised by the Coens, is ''less innocent'' than the one inhabited by Van Ronk, Dylan, Paul Clayton, Reverend Gary Davis, Joni Mitchell, Tom Paxton and the myriad other singers who are invoked in the film.
Its story bounces through actual places like Gerde's, the Gaslight Cafe and the Gate of Horn in Chicago without explicitly portraying real artists or folk music powers, like the impresario Albert Grossman.
Working with the musician Marcus Mumford, Coen said, T-Bone Burnett produced the music for Inside Llewyn Davis. Mumford sings in the movie.
Burnett had earlier provided the old-time music for O Brother, Where Art Thou? a Coen brothers caper that was based loosely on The Odyssey and released in 2000 after a Cannes debut. ''This hillbilly music's going to be big,'' Burnett told the brothers at the time.
They were sceptical. But the soundtrack was a hit and has sold roughly 8 million copies in the US.
For Inside Llewyn Davis, Burnett has helped recreate the brief flowering of a folk scene that in the early '60s made Washington Square and its environs an unlikely crossroads for musical influences from Appalachia, the deep south, the far west and New England; in fact almost anywhere but New York's neighbourhoods, from which some of its best practitioners, and Davis, arrived.
It was that cultural disconnect, Coen said, that lured him and his brother - big fans of folk music - to look for a movie in it.
When we catch up with Davis in 1961, he is frustrated. While Coen did not say how the Gerde's beating fits in the story, a Web link associated with invitations to the pre-Grammy's screening shows the singer-hero getting bounced onto a parked car and pounded in a dark alley.
''He's trying to get some traction in his career and in his life,'' Coen said. ''How good you are doesn't always matter. That's what the movie is about.''
The New York Times