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The Story You Shouldn’t Miss Inside Llewyn Davis

In creating a folk music archetype, the Coen Brothers use a collective genre to praise the power of the individual.

Susan L.M. Goldberg


January 14, 2014 - 7:00 am
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In his review of Inside Llewyn Davis, Andrew Klavan asks, “What did I miss?” It is a question I fear many in my generation will be asking as they approach the new Coen Brothers film about a folksinger from Greenwich Village. Inside Llewyn Davis lacks the clever plot twists of early hits like Miller’s Crossing, the dark psyche of Barton Fink, and the enjoyable supporting characters of The Big Lebowski. But, no two Coen Brothers movies are ever alike; in fact, to appreciate them as auteurs one must have a predilection for the unique versus the familiar.

This is probably why the few folk singers who remain from those early Village days sound off like cranky seniors in a nursing home, demanding that the Coens’ film knows nothing about the way things really were, contrary to the first-hand memory of T. Bone Burnett who was consulted in the recreation of the infamous Manhattan neighborhood circa 1961. But, everyone’s memory is different, as are their motivations. Jim Glover, half of the real-life folk duo Jim and Jean, used local newspaper coverage to snort at the film before diving into various half-baked conspiracy theories regarding the Kennedy assassination, the NSA, and the insistence that the F.B.I. kept him under surveillance in the 1950s because his father was a “fellow traveler” (code term for Communist sympathizer).

While leftist politics were a definite influence on the Greenwich scene, folks looking for Reds on the big screen will be as disappointed as those believing the film to be nothing but a glorified biopic of “Mayor of MacDougal Street” Dave Van Ronk and his cohorts. Tongue-in-cheek commentary on the leftist class structure typical to the folk music scene does more to motivate plot and character development than dig into the movement’s intellectual and political underpinnings. In fact, it is Llewyn’s struggle with culture that feeds his musical genius; he is neither uptown intellectual nor downtown middle class. While he’s willing to thumb his way from New York to Chicago to meet an agent, he is unwilling to compromise his artistic vision for commercial success.

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I like all your articles, Susan. But as an old folkie, who was always at Washington Square on Sundays for the folk singing and went to the Village clubs, and personally knew many of the figures of the day, you got one thing wrong.

Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs and Van Ronk were hardly obscure. Ochs played major Central Park concerts, Carnegie Hall and big venues, and Seeger, of course, is a major mainstream figure--celebrated nationally far too much. (as my many PJM articles have noted over and over.) As for Van Ronk, his influence was great, he had many albums recorded, and made a decent living playing- unlike the character partially based at him in the film.
As for the songs, far better is the Town Hall concert, available at Showtime, as "Another Day, Another Time." See that for the music.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Thanks, Ron; I dig your writing, too!

You'd probably get along really well with my in-laws. I absolutely agree with you that Seeger and Co. were well those who followed folk music. Ask any average music listener what folk is, and they'll say "Bob Dylan." Ask them who Seeger or Van Ronk are and they'll say, "Who?" In that sense, and with a film audience that isn't necessarily composed of folk music fans, I've found them to be very obscure figures, indeed -- especially Ochs and Van Ronk. It'd be nice if the film inspired more interest in their music. I was certainly motivated to check out their tunes.

Thanks for the tip - I will definitely check out that concert!
1 year ago
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