Inside Llewyn Davis

Inside Llewyn Davis, dir. The Coen Brothers (Studiocanal)

Ringing Roger, July 2014

If I tell you that this is a film about Bob Dylan, that might arouse your interest. But if I tell you that the actor who plays Bob Dylan only appears at the very end of the film, in profile and only for about ten seconds, you might decide not to bother watching it. Please don’t be put off. This is an intriguing study of the Greenwich Village folk scene in the early 1960s, just about the time that Robert Zimmerman hit town. It invites you to speculate about the many singers who got left behind once the famous second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, had been released to universal acclaim.

In fact, the cinematography of Inside Llewyn Davis seems deliberately to evoke that famous photo on the Freewheelin’ cover, in which the young Dylan is seen mooching along a snowy street in the Village with his girlfriend Suze Rotolo. The images or New York in the film are similarly bleak and sombre, with our hero Llewyn wandering desperately around trying to get a break in his singing career.

Dylan himself was to sing, once well-established that ‘there’s no success like failure’, while conceding paradoxically that ‘failure’s no success at all’. Well, Dylan certainly succeeded, but many of his Greenwich Village friends failed, at least by comparison. I can’t help thinking of Phil Ochs, tortured by alcoholism and depression, who wrote such timeless gems as ‘There But For Fortune’, but who was driven to suicide without having gained his due recognition.

Who, though, did the Coen Brothers actually have in mind as the real-life source for the role of Llewyn Davis? The consensus seems to be that they were thinking of Dave Van Ronk, who selflessly encouraged the young Dylan, only to see his protégé attain heights he himself could never dream of. There’s a famous story about Van Ronk recording the folk-blues classic ‘The House of the Rising Sun’, only for Dylan to imitate him, including it on his own first album – with the Dylan version completely overshadowing that of Van Ronk.

So here is a film about the time and place which allowed Zimmerman to become Dylan. We could go on forever looking for various parallels between roles played here and actual folksingers of the day, but it is worth pointing out that the characters Jim and Jean sound very much like Peter, Paul and Mary – even singing a song they made famous, ‘Five Hundred Miles’. Given Llewyn’s love-hate relationship with them, they and he look at times as though they do indeed comprise a trio, just like PP&M.

Perhaps I’m being fanciful here, but I do think that there are scenes in the film that are meant to indicate the desperate struggle that folk artists had to endure in trying to make their names in that specific moment in the history of popular music. For instance, Llewyn suffers the ultimate humiliation when he performs a song for a cynical promoter called Bud Grossman – surely based on Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman? – only to be informed curtly: ‘I don’t see any money in it.’

But rest assured, you don’t need to be old enough to remember the early 60s folk boom, nor do you need to be schooled in the machinations of the pop industry, to appreciate this sad, but often amusing, study in failure. Special credit must go to the actor who plays Llewyn, namely Oscar Isaac, whose alternating moods of gloom, discontent and outrage are conveyed with great subtlety, and whose singing performances sound searchingly authentic.

So even if Dylan hardly appears in Inside Llewyn Davis, you will find this account of the time just before he made it enormously helpful in understanding his significance. But if you’re not a Dylan devotee – and believe it or not, I’ve met people who say they simply don’t ‘get’ him! – you will still learn a great deal about making music, about human vulnerability and about the remorseless nature of the fame game.

Laurence Coupe