"Back in the day," I wish I'd been old enough to hang out in Greenwich Village (late 1950s through the early 1960s). New York beckoned to me as a child in Baltimore. I picked up radio signals on a short wave. What a time it was for music, art, poetry, dance, and theater in that town.
The Coen brothers' latest film, set in 1961 in the Village, centers on a musician. This is the time before the heydey when Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary, and Joan Baez brought bigger crowds to the place. In this percolating atmosphere, musicians played for tips, lived hand-to-mouth, and eked out livings. But, there was a joy in sharing traditional American music with other musicians.
What was this music? It was that of the Delta blues and the traditional ballads that had made their way to Appalachia from Ireland and England. A revival, of sorts, of this music was going on, supported by musicians who looked back and then re-worked it. Along the way, these hipsters scorned pop artists like the Kingston Trio as sell-outs, and had conflicts with coffeehouse owners and managers who wanted dollars and commercial success.
Remember Dave Van Ronk? No? (As an aside, his reworking of the traditional folk song " Rising Sun Blues" into the version of "The House of the Rising Sun" popularized by The Animals was on Bob Dylan's first album, even though it was one of Van Ronk's signature tunes and he had planned to record it himself.)
"Inside Llweyn Davis" was influenced by Dave Van Ronk and his autobiography, "The Mayor of MacDougal Street." In this book, he recounted the days when musicians shared their love of authentic folk all the while others copped out to the search for the spotlight in the larger world of popular music. To artists like Dave Van Ronk, the truth of the music mattered.
The amazing cinematography, storytelling, and music production (of T-Bone Burnett, of course), capture the sensibility of this unique era in American musical history. The film covers a week in the life of folksinger Llewyn Davis, played by Oscar Isaac, a Julliard graduate. Isaac is joined occasionally by Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan (as the duo Jim and Jean). Llewyn wants to communicate authentic American music. Jim and Jean have a more commercial take on the art form, and are on the verge of "popular" success.
Smaller roles in the film are played magnificently. John Goodman (a favorite of the Coen brothers) plays a curmudgeonly jazz musician named Roland Turner who criticizes Davis as they drive together from New York to Chicago. One of my favorites, F. Murray Abraham, is Bud Grossman, a club owner who only looks at musicians for dollar signs. Grossman dismisses Davis, seeing him as someone who can't make him money. Yet, the voice of Davis soars, beautifully expressing the emotions and depth of the tunes.
All music is actually sung in the film (not lip synched), giving it a purity. Also, the musicians sing complete songs, almost placing the viewing audience in the room with the performers. "Inside Lewyn Davis" replicates, as much as any current film can, the look, style, and sounds of the folk scene of 1961 in the Village.
And themes that prevailed for musicians and artist still prevail today: the conflict between pure and commercial art, between the hope for fame and the desire to maintain individuality, and the wish to create new even while drawing on music of the past. This artful film reinforces that the same quest continues today in garages, coffee houses, and streets to live creatively and maybe, just maybe, make a living of it while maintaining personal integrity.
"Inside Llweyn Davis" has been critically acclaimed (though essentially snubbed by the Oscar nominations, though there's a nod for its cinematography and sound mixing). It has won the Grand Prix award at Cannes, has been nominated for 3 Golden Globes (Best Motion Picture, Best Performance by an Actor, Best Original Song), and has won numerous awards, including Best Film, Best Cinematography, and Best Director (National Society of Film Critics) and Best Music from the LA Film Critics Association.
It's interesting that a film that has won 28 awards and has 69 nominations did not receive more recognition from the Oscars, but in one sense, that is a theme of the film. If one remains true to oneself and shuns selling out to be more commercial, one remains in the shadows.
Right now in Albuquerque, this film is screening at the Century Rio 24 and XD, 4901 Pan American Freeway NE and UA High Ridge 8, 12921 Indian School NE. The film is scheduled for a wide release on January 24.