The gentle picking of guitar strings and an intensely soulful voice brings to life the chords and lyrics of Dave van Ronk’s ‘Hang me Oh Hang me’. The smokey New York tavern is entranced and so too the whole cinema. It’s an incredibly powerful opening scene that sets the tone for the rest of the film.
Casually the Cat Stevens looking folk singer Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaacs) leaves the stage, retiring to the bar where club owner Pappi (Max Casella) tells him his friend is waiting for him round back. The mysterious shadow man gives Llewyn a beating for reasons not yet known.
Llewyn wakes up startled by a cat, following it down the corridor, Llewyn seems to know his way around. Clearly this Upper West Side apartment is not his, but the Gorfeins. He has breakfast and writes a thank you note before making his departure, but the cat slips out and they both end up locked out. With all the neighbours out, and the lift operator unwilling to keep an eye on it, Llewyn takes the cat with him.
Clearly poor and unsuccessful as a solo artist Llewyn has become a regular couch hopper, resting his head on any couch or floor to those still willing to tolerate him. Among those gracious people are Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Jean (Carey Mulligan). Jean and Llewyn have a very hostile relationship, and this increases when Jean tells him she’s pregnant and she can’t be sure it’s his or Jim’s, forcing Llewyn to pay for the abortion, as Jim may never know. Coming up with the money proves difficult. He goes straight to his agent who tells him, that his album Inside Llewyn Davis isn’t selling, but supposedly he sent a copy to Bud Grossman, big time producer in Chicago. Being the freezing winter, Llewyn throws a fit, taking his agents coat and storms off to Queens, hoping his sister will borrow him money. She only lectures him to go visit his father and asks about what she should do with a box full of things Llewyn left there, foolishly he just tells her to through it out. In the midst of all this he manages to lose the Gorfeins’ cat again.
The film plays of in a span of a week, displaying the many struggles Llewyn faces, as a folk singer. At one stage he thinks about giving up, telling Jean he is tired, he’s going back to his life with the Merchant Marine, but barely being able to pay for it and having lost his licence because it was in the box he told his sister to throw out, he is stuck. Stuck and tired. He constantly thinks about his former partner Mike, who committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge, not only taking his life but drowning Llewyns career with him. It is a type of tired that many feel, the type that sucks you dry that the one thing you are passionate about becomes a suffocating thought. Layered with sombre themes and melancholy, the film does offer many lighter and comical moments.
Llewyn Davis is based on real life singer Dave van Ronk, who also settled in New York Greenwich Village, and a former seaman. Although the portrayal of him was much darker than those close to him would characterise. The fictional vinyl cover and title, copies that of a Van Ronk cover and note the cat.
Interestingly, Joel Coen said the film didn’t really have a plot. And so they wrote in the cat. Naturally filming a cat is not as easy as filming a dog and in the end it took several cats and a animal trainer to get the shots desired.
If anything the music is amazing! T Bone Burnett (not the rapper) did an excellent job as the films executive music producer in association with Marcus Mumford (yes from Mumford and Sons). Burnett previously worked on the Coen Brothers The Big Lebowski and my personal favourite O Brother, Where Art Thou? Isaac did a phenomenal job and Timberlake pleasantly surprises with a diverse range. All the vocal performances are worthy of applaud. It did get nominations for Best Cinematography and Best Sound Mixing at the Academy Awards and a Golden Globe Award nomination for Best Motion Picture in a Comedy or Musical.
Other performances at the Gaslight Cafe that are suggestive to other 60’s groups and folk singers include the sweater wearing quartet that resemble the Clancy Brothers, the young Bob Dylan (who was friends with Van Ronk) and Troy Nelson (Stark Sands). The soundtrack is a must for all folk lovers. It is even available on vinyl, in true 60’s style.
Some might criticise the lack of political and economic commentary, knowing well what the atmosphere was like in 1960’s America. The film only makes slight mention of it in the song Please Mr Kennedy, obviously referring to then US president John F Kennedy (shot in 1963) and the Moon landing. But what about the Anti-Vietnam movement, or Martin Luther King or the Civil Right Act? These are fair questions BUT it is not a political film, the focus is on a struggling folk singer.
Inside Llewyn Davis is definitely one of those rare films that has the ability to make you forget about time and be entranced by deeply emotive musical performances and as anyone in the entertainment industry, relatable struggles.