A Folk Singer on What Inside Llewyn Davis Gets Wrong About Music
By MARK MATOS
[Editor's Note: Mark Matos is a folk and rock musician based in San Francisco and the leader of Mark Matos and Os Beaches. His gathering of friends and collaborators are performing as Americalia Monday nights in January at the Elbo Room.]
The Coen Brothers new film, Inside Llewyn Davis, is set in the pre-Dylan Greenwich Village folk scene of 1961, with characters loosely based on under-appreciated folk heroes like Tom Paxton, Ramblin' Jack Elliot, and Dave Van Ronk, sporting a screenplay inspired by the memoir of Van Ronk. It's an homage to the scene that brought Dylan east, to the colorful characters chronicled in Dylan's own biography (as well as David Hajdu's Positively 4th Street), to the Gaslight Theater and Folkways Records. I founded the Family Folk Explosion project back in 2011 as a way of re-connecting the rock 'n' roll tradition to its folk music roots. Naturally, I was excited to see what the Coen Brothers would do with such a rich moment in American music. With a folk musician as protagonist, what story would they tell?
The film was inspired by The Mayor Of MacDougal Street, Elijah Wald's biography of folk legend Dave Van Ronk, and although the film is fictional, the lead character is without question based on him. He is dressed like Van Ronk, His beard is trimmed like Van Ronk, his solo debut album is titled Inside Llewyn Davis, mirroring the title of Van Ronk's Inside Dave Van Ronk; he has stints in the merchant marine like Van Ronk; he sings Van Ronk's repertoire; both are from Brooklyn; and there are a couple of (very good) scenes lifted straight from his book. That's a lot of similarities, but this is where they end.
Dave Van Ronk was a huge personality, charismatic, complex, the king of the scene in the Village of 1961. Llewyn Davis is a prick who surfs from couch to couch in a sour mood and struggles with the multiple relationships in his life. There's his relationship with Jean (one half of the Jim and Jean singing couple) who he has possibly impregnated; his relationship with his sister; his father; a mysterious ex who has fled to Akron; his relationship with a couple of cats; and his relationship with music. It's this last where I think the film misses something essential. Llewyn Davis seems tired. Tired of the game, tired of playing the Gaslight again, tired of music at age 25 or thereabouts. The musical life will make you tired, no doubt, but there is little hint that he ever loved music, lived it, and breathed it. There are some well-executed performances (thank T Bone Burnett), but not enough to establish the dark and mysterious pull of the musical life.
Music is a calling, or at least you don't get good unless it is. It's not a job. It's a way of living, of seeing the world, a language. Yet for the musicians in this film, music is their field of work, much as advertising is to the characters of Mad Men. The characters' relationship to music seems primarily a careerist concern, Llewyn Davis' anti-careerist lip service aside. There are too few hints of music as spiritual pursuit, music as air, of the transcendence of song. Llewyn Davis says music is a job, a way of making a living -- or usually not making a living, in this case. The film shows no jamming, no sitting around the living room drinking and picking on old tunes, riffing and laughing into the wee hours, none of the mystical, magical stuff -- the cornerstones of the folk life.
Without that, Llewyn Davis comes across as shallow and one-dimensional, just a guy who sucks at relationships. But the paramount relationship in the life of the musician is the relationship with music. Their choices, and how they effect the other relationships in their life are guided by this primary relationship. The film gives short shrift to this -- possibly on purpose, given that popular culture is loaded with films and books that have served to mythologize the life of the musician. It chooses to focus instead on every other relationship in Llewyn's life. But since a real feeling of love of music is never established, the characters come across as cardboard cut-outs, half-seen ghosts of folk music's past.
Maybe it's the esoteric concerns of one hard-luck folk singer for a six-string comrade whose voice has passed us by, but I can't shake the feeling that the film is a disservice to Dave Van Ronk, that he will be associated with Llewyn Davis by a large portion of the public who otherwise knows little to nothing about him. This has been compounded by the countless interviews and reviews that mention Van Ronk, and the most recent pressing of The Mayor of MacDougal Street referencing the film on the front cover. Llewyn Davis is a fictional character, but not really. When you have him dressed like Dave Van Ronk, singing his repertoire, and re-enacting specific scenes from his life -- when you exploit someone else's story and art to create a derivative work -- you want to consider what responsibility, artistically speaking, you have to the original work and to the artist who lived the life on which you are basing your art. If you are going to work within a limitation (which is what artists do), you want to honor the limitation, push at the edges. That's the struggle the Coens evaded. A biographical picture comes with limitations that the public understands, and will have dramatizations and even minor inaccuracies. A fictional film can be a total work of the imagination. The Coen brothers made neither. Watching Llewyn Davis, you wonder whose story is getting pushed, and who is doing the pushing?
There are a number of other problems with the picture that the Coen's have painted of the Village folk scene of 1961. Dave Van Ronk's ex-wife wrote an Op-Ed for the Village Voice, pointing to the scene in which it is suggested that female performers had to sleep with the Gaslight owner to secure a gig at the club as a total fabrication. She took particular issue with the handling of Jean's abortion, with its wildly inaccurate recreation of how you got one in 1961, pre-Roe v. Wade. She points out that Van Ronk would never be hanging out with Jim and Jean (they considered that segment of the folk scene uptight, too straight) much less sleeping on their couch -- it was Van Ronk who possessed the "golden couch," after all.
She also wonders why no one is happy. I wonder that, too. It just doesn't ring true. The Coen Brothers have missed the trees for the forest. They have confused the aesthetic choices, the old songs and vintage menorahs, for the spirit of the time. No one seems to be having fun in this film, and there is no feeling of discovery. Yet these were people who were discovering old songs and singers, discovering new ideas, walking in Whitman's wake, discovering themselves. You have to deal with the emotional aesthetic of discovery if you want to base a film in the Village folk scene of 1961. Otherwise you end up with what the Coen Brothers have here: a good-looking but emotionally dishonest film about a group of people who never could have existed in a time that never was. Maybe I should have gone and watched The Hobbit.