Ever been to one of those musical revue shows? On Broadway, I think they’ve sucked the well dry of every hit Motown and doo-wop single recorded between, say, 1955 and 1970, and eager producers no doubt saw the potential to repeat the formula with such disparate acts as Billy Joel, Def Leppard, and fucking ABBA. This particular form of pageantry cannot avoid campiness—I’ll admit to having a few songs off of Pyromania on my iTunes, but most patrons of their Broadway repurposings are well aware of the songs’ catchiness and cheesiness when they take their orchestra seats—and so often falls flat in terms of exposition: Why sit through some juvenilely crafted story that distracts me from the music I know when I could mindlessly play the entirety of Van Halen II at home? Well, anyway, Inside Llewyn Davis reminded me of these revue shows, with three differences. One, folk music hasn’t received such mainstream stage treatment—no one’s clamoring for Dylan: The Musical, which is a little odd, considering folk’s tone and apparent expectation of respective listening is better suited to hush-hush theaters than hair metal or barbershop quartets. Two, its story isn’t filler—there’s a reason to go to the theater to take in Inside Llewyn Davis, in all of its melancholy sagacity, complete with both an earnest treatment on the power of friendship and a twist on a spoken-word classic with which the Coen brothers’, its directors, are familiar. Three, the music is genuinely good, and not cheesy.
To work backwards, I think it helps to focus first on the music, since the film’s songs anchor its thematic implications and provide the film with a heart in contrast to the spare and unforgiving reality that envelops the musicians depicted, especially the title character (Oscar Isaac), after they’ve strummed their final chords; in other words, Inside Llewyn Davis is a well-structured musical. “If it was never new, and it never gets old, it’s a folk song,” mutters Llewyn into the microphone after he’s finished performing his set that opens the movie. It’s a line that’s sure to elicit some knowing laughter—these are the Coen brothers behind the camera, after all—but contains some truth. Folk music won’t have anybody dancing in the aisles, but the genre’s tone is one of lived experience, not so wizened as to repel anybody (except non-folk musicians, like John Goodman’s character who appears later in the film), and generally contemplative rather than flighty or artificial. To hear nothing but the guitar and the voices evokes a certain universality and accessibility. Llewyn will have his time on the stage at The Gaslight in 1961 New York, he’ll sing a ballad or two of a fable you might’ve heard, and others will join and follow him. The movie communicates the camaraderie, if largely an uneasy one (and Llewyn has plenty to do with that unease), that a community of folk singers, all looking to make a name for themselves, earn some cash, and to do so singing some songs that spoke to them, shared.
The existence of this community facilitates how the Coens stage their film and allows them to use music as a buttress for their film’s dramatic developments. An early scene features a flame of Llewyn’s, Jean (Carey Mulligan) performing “Five Hundred Miles” with her husband Jim (Justin Timberlake) and an Army man passing through, and the looks shared by Jean and Llewyn disclose their own frustrations with each other and with a personal development that threatens to undermine their relationships, and Llewyn’s resentment that he hasn’t met the success that has begun to follow his acquaintances. A later scene features Llewyn performing a dirge, “The Death of Queen Jane,” before a record producer; in singing Llewyn clearly conveys his mourning and listlessness after his musical partner Mike’s death. We’d question his choice of audition material if we hadn’t earlier seen Llewyn bristle at recording “Please Mr. Kennedy” with Jim and Al Cody (Adam Driver), a cash grab that offends Llewyn’s contradictory self-assessment as an artist; it’s a cash grab to the extent that a folk song can be (it’s reflective of its era and adheres to Llewyn’s never new, never old test), and Llewyn’s perception of himself is contradictory because he always needs money and takes his job very seriously (revealed in a later scene at a dinner party when his frequent shelterers on the Upper West Side essentially demand that he play for his food and couch to sleep on, as the Filmspotting guys touched on). In the moment, what probably bugs Llewyn most is the song’s playfulness, and moody, forlorn Llewyn is rarely in a playful mood.
But I hope you can see how the music serves the story in this case, and vice-versa. Most of the songs contain a hint of anguish—Llewyn isn’t the only one bearing his soul for his audience, a fact that surely irks him or one that he might try to dismiss; it’s his movie, in all honesty—but vary slightly each time depending on who is singing. No song performed is complete without the actors (who to the best of my knowledge all do their own singing), their instruments they’ve chosen, and the setting, which all congeal into a coherent whole that broadcasts something, however trivial or intimate, about the performer. There is a high correlation between strength of performer and the performer’s ability to transmit his or her personality while on stage and make it contagious, and it’s evident from a song’s opening lines who’s in a (relatively) good mood, and who isn’t (not that a bad mood is a hindrance to a good show). Helping further is the Coens’ consistency in staging the musical numbers. Most of the time the setting is the Village’s dim Gaslight, but wherever someone is playing music in front of the camera, the Coens keep their distance and let the actor-musicians and T-Bone Burnett’s supervision of the recordings dominate. Because the Coens don’t judge the music, you become the critic, picking out what you did or didn’t appreciate about the performer and song—for instance, I thought it was ridiculously silly when four guys in matching white sweaters got up on stage to sing without a trace of irony, but on the whole I relished most of what was sung, especially Llewyn’s almost laughably sad requiems, a conclusion the Coens just might share.
And the music, and the lived experiences played out in the lyrics of a folk song, is the vessel through which I began to empathize with the characters, especially Llewyn. The film only grants us a three-day VIP pass to Llewyn’s life, but that brief Odyssey—yes, the film strongly resembles The Odyssey—is enough to learn of Llewyn’s stubbornness, elitism, selfishness, and extraordinary bad luck, as we follow him from apartment to apartment, from café to studio, through the streets of New York after he’s lost a cat that escaped the UWS apartment where he stayed (and the symbolism is jokingly blatant: “Llewyn is the cat,” someone mishears), and even to Chicago with a gonzo musician (Goodman) and his wordless, Marlboro Man driver (Garrett Hedlund as a zany reference to Peter Stormare’s near-silent character in Fargo, who was literally described as “kinda like the Marlboro Man”). Here is a guy who sleeps with married women even though he knows the seemingly cheerful enough husband, and a guy who neglects some of his duties as a father and as a son. One of the movie’s central themes, moreover is that perceived old divide between art and entertainment. In its proper state, I don’t think such a divide should exist, and often you want to smack Llewyn to tell him to get with the program a little bit, to cheer up, to not play the world’s saddest song during what should be his break, and to recognize where and how he might earn some cash so that he doesn’t have to beg for a place to stay each night. Surely Llewyn didn’t quit the merchant marine not to make any money, even if he’s pursuing his—the dreaded college counselor word—passion. Llewyn’s situation remains unkind in part to how he kicks himself and in part to poor timing, as the film’s final scenes indicate; the Coens’ cruel take on The Odyssey this time is that Llewyn isn’t returning home to a wife and a bed made out of a tree, but likely to the same stasis, the same feeling of moving while remaining in one place, that had tortured and exasperated him before. Of course, it’s another turn of the screw that Llewyn has found himself in his own folk song—The Odyssey, told initially by a bard, perhaps with a guitar, down through the centuries, is never new and never old, and is a prime example of the genre.
What saves Llewyn’s reputation is the music, and what his music tells us and his audiences about how he feels now that his partner is gone. What I’m most appreciative of Inside Llewyn Davis for, in addition to the music, is its portrayal of friendship. I wrote last year about how the concept of friendship is, in my opinion, underexplored in popular culture—too often we see two guys together on a screen or on a page, and many people reflexively assume that they must be gay. I’m all for depictions of gay relationships, certainly, but I’m not for guessing at characters’ sexual orientation, especially when the work doesn’t insist on or intimate at it. Because Mike is dead when the movie opens, we only hear him and Llewyn sing together, and because Llewyn’s, um, swordsmanship, is made known, his orientation is settled—but critically, Llewyn’s not being gay for Mike in no way diminishes his sorrow, and I was heartened to see that the impact from the loss of a friend, rather a lover, could cast an equal pall over the survivor. If Llewyn’s life remains shitty throughout the time we spend with him, that shittiness is compounded by his friend’s not being there, for a friend is often the one with whom you feel most comfortable commiserating. Llewyn has difficulty communicating in conversation the emptiness he feels, so it’s a good thing the dude can sing—and it’s a good thing a lot of depressing songs survived until 1961.