Niagara Gazette

December 10, 2013

CALLERI: New Coen brothers movie points a lens at the folk music scene

By Michael Calleri
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — For most of their filmmaking careers, the Coen brothers (Ethan and Joel) have been happy to work outside the major studio system. They’ve been monumentally successful with their special blend of stories that deliver off-kilter characters and a deliciously jaundiced interpretation of reality.

Only a handful of other independent writer-directors have achieved their level of acceptance by audiences. Certainly Woody Allen. Wes Anderson also comes to mind. The Coens and Allen are surely Academy Award-bound this year.

Allen has “Blue Jasmine,” which has been playing steadily in the United States since July. It’s heading for Oscar nominations for best actress (Cate Blanchett) and original screenplay. In this year’s very crowded field, Allen and his superb drama might be nudged out for best directing and picture honors.

“Inside Llewyn Davis,” the Coen’s new film, should earn multiple nominations, including for best actor, best supporting actor, and original screenplay. As with Allen, there are too many other excellent movies to make an exact guess on directing and picture, but I would also be happy if the movie was selected in those categories.

The story of “Inside Llewyn Davis” follows a straight line: one week in the ragged life of a rumpled singer as he navigates the Greenwich Village folk scene of 1961. This being the Coen brothers, that line has numerous odd and interesting roadblocks through which Llewyn Davis must pass. The most pressing roadblock is his own abrasive personality

Davis traverses Manhattan with his guitar, crashing on the couches of friends and strangers, never quite making it beyond being a mid-level folk singer. He’s on the verge of being an anachronism as the folk scene winds down, soon to give way to British rock and roll and a new American musical poet, Bob Dylan, who was less folk-oriented than many people believe. In 1961, folk music was rooted in traditional songs of the open road (Pete Seeger’s work, for example) or in novelty tunes like The Kingston Trio’s episodic “Tom Dooley” and their sprightly “M.T.A.” Peter, Paul, and Mary’s wildly popular version of “Puff The Magic Dragon” would effectively end the folk era in 1963.

Davis was part of a moderately successful duo, but his partner committed suicide rather than face performing in one more smoked-filled coffee house. Davis totes around their album as both a touchstone and a resume. The suicide still pains him, but music is all he knows.

Davis is not only facing his own obsolescence, but also a harsh New York winter. He roams the city wearing a corduroy jacket and woolen scarf, sometimes with a cat in tow, not his. It belongs to a classic Upper West Side, married intellectual couple who treat Davis as a favored pet of their own, always introducing him as their friend “the folk singer.”

Davis makes money with what work he can find, especially at the Gaslight Cafe, but he’s filled with anger and regret. He’s cornered by what seem like insurmountable obstacles. The folk era is dwindling down, and he’s not a warm and fuzzy fellow.

The movie begins with him singing. He then gets beaten-up in an alley by a mysterious man, a classic Coen character. The film jumps back in time to visit the short period that brought Davis to the point of the assault. During this week, Davis will get into confrontations with people, journey to Chicago to meet an important and legendary music impresario who delivers a painful truth, and return to New York perhaps realizing that the truth he heard is both a reward and a warning. What does he really want?

“Inside Llewyn Davis” is filled with gorgeous, Oscar-worthy cinematography thanks to the work of France’s Bruno Delbonnel. The movie was financed by StudioCanal, the French production company. The script is tight and perfect and the direction is precise and uncluttered.

Oscar Isaac is superb as the hopeful Davis, giving him the right touch of confidence, even if that confidence will be negated by the tough world around him. Isaac, who went to the Julliard School of Music, sings beautifully. He’s in almost every essential frame of the movie. John Goodman is caustic and funny as an eloquent and perceptive stranger on Llewyn’s road trip. Both Isaac and Goodman deserve Academy Award consideration. Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan are Jim and Jean, a folk duo. Mulligan’s character has a past with Davis, and she excoriates him for his failings. The rest of the cast is top-notch.

The many lilting folk songs heard in the movie are sung in their entirety. The lyrical music was selected by T Bone Burnett.

“Inside Llewyn Davis” is a rich and atmospheric look at an era, and a bountiful and unique character study. It’s one of the best movies of this or any other year.

 

 

Michael Calleri reviews films for Night and Day. Contact him at moviecolumn@outlook.com.