The Ballad of Llewyn the Luckless

There’s at least one struggling musician who doesn’t need Bob Dylan to tell him failure is no success at all. Llewyn Davis is in Greenwich Village in February 1961, with a guitar, a repertoire of traditional folk songs, and a fiercely-held ‘life of an artist’ set of ideals.He also recorded an album that hasn’t sold well enough to buy him a winter coat. Written and directed by Ethan and Joel Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis, released in the fall of 2013 and available on DVD at the Whitehorse Public Library, was inspired by Dave von Ronk’s memoir, The Mayor of MacDougal Street. The book’s about being a working musician in Greenwich Village. Llewyn Davis isn’t Dave von Ronk (who died in 2002), but his life inspired details of Coen brothers’ character, such as the missing coat.In an interview included on a DVD extra, actor Oscar Isaac describes the character he plays, Llewyn, as optimistic, joyful, and gregarious — but not this week. Llewyn spends most of his time shuttling his few possessions from one friend’s place to another, trying to scare up a few dollars here and there, while absorbing humiliations, both real and imagined; he just might be at the end of his rope.Llewyn may be the father to Jean’s (Carey Mulligan’s) yet unborn baby. Jean is a woman of few words, but when she does talk it’s with angry profanities, which she throws at the disappointing Llewyn. Jean isn’t sure if dalliances with the struggling musician left her pregnant, or if her oblivious yet diligent partner, Jim (Justin Timberlake), is the father.  There are other characters drawn from real life. Troy Nelson (Stark Sands) is a songwriting soldier based on Tom Paxton. Troy baffles Llewyn with his supposed ability to “connect” with an audience. Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) is a thinly disguised version of Albert Grossman, a controversial figure who managed several musicians in the 1960s, including Bob Dylan. John Goodman plays a dissipated jazz musician with a particular contempt for folk musicians. “In jazz we play all the notes,” he says to Llewyn, “…not three chords on a ook-a-lele.” Inside Llewyn Davis is a musical film; when Llewyn sings, you can see past his stoic spikiness, to what is going on inside him. Oscar Isaac is primarily an actor, but performs the traditional songs of grief, loss, and distance in arrangements as soulful and distinctive as Dave von Ronk’s versions, in contrast to the sweeter music of the other performers. T-Bone Burnett produced the music for Inside Llewyn Davis, choosing classic traditional pieces from the folk revival repertoire. Some songs were filmed live, by the actors. The actors and off-screen musicians give the folk-sound arrangements a contemporary edge. The ubiquitous Marcus Mumford, of the band Mumford and Sons, and the Punch Brothers, also appear in brief but dynamic performances as facsimiles of the Clancy Brothers, which bolsters the music of the actors.Bob Dylan arrived in Greenwich Village in January, 1961, and at the end of Inside Llewyn Davis, he takes his seat on the Gaslight coffeehouse stage after Llewyn’s hard-won set. Dylan’s appearance hints at the wind of change that’s about to blow through this insular world, though first he’ll trod a path similar to the hapless Llewyn. But what about Llewyn? It’s a question you might find yourself contemplating long after Llewyn bids au revoir.

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