Wild Young Minds: Inside Llewyn Davis: a combination of music and misery

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis: a combination of music and misery

It’s 1961, it’s winter and we’re in New York. We’re in the Gaslight Cafe in good old Greenwich Village, to mention the exact location. A bearded guy is sitting on a chair with a guitar in his hand. From his mouth sensitive words depart, sang with a hoarse and husky voice. Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is performing and already in the first minutes of the film we see (or better said: hear) that he is deeply talented.
Yet Llewyn Davis’ life story is not an easy route to fame. Somehow, he doesn’t seem to sell many records and he struggles to make money. This is especially the case since his partner, with whom he had great success singing simple folk songs, threw himself off a bridge. Davis travels from couch to couch and doesn’t even have a winter coat to survive the harsh winter in New York City. Moreover, all simple things in life seem to go wrong. After a night on the couch of his older friends the Gorfeins, their red cat gets locked out and so Davis has to take care of the cat, whose name is unknown (reference to ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ here, my own probably, but still!). Davis takes the cat to his friends, the couple Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Jean (Carey Mulligan). Jean is furious at Davis for bringing the cat and for asking to sleep on their couch a-gain. A bit later, it turns out Jean is pregnant and it is possible the baby is Llewyn’s.
An abortion has to be arranged for Jean. Davis agrees to pay for it and schedule it as well, because he knows a doctor from another time he made a girl pregnant. Jean is still extremely upset and calls Davis a loser, an asshole and many other shitty things. Davis himself can’t stop swearing either, for instance when he’s having dinner at the Gorfein’s place; he gets an argument with Mrs. Gorfein and insults her intensely. He’s not welcome on their couch anymore, obviously, so he seeks shelter at another singer's (Al Cody) place. Here, he hears that two of Cody’s friends are leaving for Chicago and Davis decides to travel along. The friends are the quiet beat poet Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund, how I love this guy!) and the mean jazz musician Roland Turner (John Goodman, who we know from ‘The Big Lebowski’). On the road, Turner overdoses in the restroom of a restaurant and Five gets arrested.
And so Davis is stuck alone again and decides to go to Chicago anyway. He visits the legendary Bud Grossman, a producer, and sings a song for him. Grossman is not interested and this gets Davis even more depressed. Despite always having been self-assured, Davis loses faith of becoming a successful folk singer and wants to return to his old job, shipping. Unfortunately, this isn’t possible either because he’s lost his licence. Back in New York, Jean has set up another performance for Davis in the Gaslight Cafe and so he sings his raw songs one more time, eventually making place for a familiar folk singer, which is obviously Bob Dylan in his younger days. How Davis will survive, we will never know, for he is one of the many artists meaning to become famous but never made it as far as, say, Dylan. Life is a struggle and it definitely is, and was, for all those talented but unfortunate artists in New York.
Inside Llewyn Davis is written and directed by the Coen Brothers, Joen and Ethan. As you’d expect, the film is (partly) based on a folk singer who really existed: Dave Van Ronk. Though Llewyn Davis is a fictional character, the Coen Brothers used Van Ronk’s autobiography and songs as inspiration. All songs, with one exception, are recorded live and really sang by Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake and Adam Driver. Quite an achievement!  
In my opinion, the Coen Brothers did a great job creating a film based on a dark story, the life of a singer in New York who has little success and suffers a lot, yet not making it too heavy-hearted. The film is full of light humour, which is alternated with all of the abusive words. There’s one time though, while Davis is in Chicago trying to convince Grossman of his talent, when the misery is becoming a bit too much. Davis got stuck alone on the road, after one of his fellow travellers died and the other arrested, the weather is horrible and he has no money. At this point, we really wish he had some luck, even if it was just a little, and his talent was recognized. Because after all, we can all see how talented the guy is. Himself included.
Most of the time, however, the dark atmosphere perfectly suits the story. No overwhelmingly beautiful sights of New York, just wintery, grey and misty sights of Greenwich Village. Yes, New York isn’t all beauty, New York is cold too and that’s the way reality is. This film is definitely realistic and that’s also because of the art of acting. Especially Oscar Isaac is magnificent as Llewyn Davis. With his big beard and grumpy glance he takes us into that pessimistic and dusk mood in which he resides all the time. Carey Mulligan is convincing as always, though I would love to see her in a more carefree part for a change. I’ve seen most of the films she made so far and she always plays this somewhat damaged character. As for Justin Timberlake, this is the first film I’ve seen him in and, though this is also due to his part, he comes off a bit shallow. I don’t think this part really gave him the chance to show us what he has, but I’m still pretty hesitant when it comes to Justin Timberlake as an actor.
To say it shortly and simple, this film definitely didn’t disappoint me. My expectations were high, since I love the Coen Brothers, since I love the folk scene of the sixties and since I love Greenwich Village, New York, but I enjoyed myself marvellously in the theatre (I was alone for your information). The film is quite dark, yet this was fitting most of the time. I do advice you to only go see it if you’re really interested in music, in history and if you can deal with some misery. If so, I’d say: grab your bag, see if your cat stays inside and let’s go!

No comments:

Post a Comment