“I’m not the one you want, babe
I’m not the one you need
You say you’re lookin’ for someone
Never weak but always strong
To protect you an’ defend you
Whether you are right or wrong
But it ain’t me, babe
No, no, no, it ain’t me, babe
It ain’t me you’re lookin’ for, babe”
- “It Ain’t Me, Babe” by Bob Dylan
Every time I watch Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), I’m reminded of the Bob Dylan song, “It Ain’t Me, Babe” and how the lyrics pertain to the film’s titular character. Set in 1961, it is the Coen brothers’ bittersweet love letter to folk music. Even though the film takes place before Dylan’s career took off, his shadow looms large because we know, in hindsight, how much he will influence the New York City Greenwich Village scene and beyond. Instead of focusing on that, the Coens decide to chronicle a week’s worth of misadventures from Llewyn’s life and how he manages to self-sabotage every potential shot at success. Partly inspired by folk singer Dave Von Ronk, Llewyn is brilliantly portrayed by Oscar Isaac who depicts his character as equal parts gifted musician and misanthrope.
The film opens with Llewyn’s moving cover of “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” in a small nightclub in the Village. Isaac is actually playing and singing live, delivering a soulful rendition of this song. It sets a definite tone and mood, complete with the stylized cinematography that resembles a slightly faded photograph. Llewyn’s life is a mess. His musical partner committed suicide and he’s attempting a solo career with little success. His debut record isn’t selling very well and his manager (Jerry Grayson) has no idea how to promote it or him, for that matter. Personally, he lives a transient lifestyle, crashing on the couches of various friends and ex-girlfriends, chief among them is Jean Berkey (Carey Mulligan).
It’s not that Llewyn doesn’t know what makes a hit record. He recognizes what songs people like as evident in the one that fellow folk singer Troy Nelson (Stark Sands) performs with Jean and her husband Jim (Justin Timberlake) that the audience spontaneously sings a-long to. Llewyn stubbornly picks songs to play that are powerful but not very catchy. When he does get a shot on cashing in on a potential hit record, he forgoes royalties for money up front because he is in desperate need of it. The scene depicting the recording of said song is hilarious as Isaac and Justin Timberlake work out the arrangement while Adam Driver, in a memorable cameo, warms up in the background with all sorts of odd sounds. Then, they record the song and you can tell that it is going to be a hit. Arriving in Chicago partway through the film, Llewyn seeks out legendary nightclub owner Bud Grossman (F.Murray Abraham) and plays him a song full of feeling and emotion but it’s not much of a toe-tapper or, as Bud tells him afterwards, “I don’t see a lot of money here.”
Along the way Llewyn acquires a traveling companion – a cat that he accidentally let out at a place he was staying. The musician loses the feline a couple of times but they always seem to find each other. Inside Llewyn Davis segues into a proper road movie when Llewyn shares a car ride to Chicago with an obnoxious jazz musician (Coen regular John Goodman) and nearly mute beat poet (Garrett Hedlund). We feel Llewyn’s pain as he spends hours enduring the jazzman’s insults and the driver’s monosyllabic responses (rivaling Peter Storemare’s equally silent type in Fargo). Their journey feels like an eternity until the poet tells a cryptic story and then recites one of his poems.
Oscar Isaac is a revelation in this film, digging deep to find a way to make an unlikeable character like Llewyn watchable. The actor uncovers Llewyn’s feelings in a heartfelt scene when he visits his father who is sick. He plays a song for him that he used to like. Early on, his sister (Jeanine Serralles) hints at a contentious relationship between father and son and through song the latter tries to reconnect with the former. The stern-faced patriarch says nothing but he seems to find some kind of peace from Llewyn’s performance. It is a touching moment until the Coens punctuate it with a bit of a cruel poop joke.
Llewyn’s music comes out of a great pain that is conveyed through the emotion in his singing and playing. Clearly, he has not gotten over his partner’s death and it colors his entire worldview. As a result, he doesn’t let anyone get too close lest he loses them, too. Isaac refuses to shy away from Llewyn’s less sympathetic aspects. When he’s on stage, however, he’s capable of such warmth and emotion as evident in the absolutely moving final musical number, a powerful rendition of “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song).”
Cast against type, Carey Mulligan portrays Jean as an acerbic woman that clearly resents Llewyn over the failure of their past relationship. She often spews venom at his direction, still bitter over how things went between them. Jean knows that she can’t depend on him and even though he still has feelings for her knows, deep down, that it will never work out between them because he’s emotionally unavailable. Mulligan does an excellent job playing Llewyn’s angry foil while also hinting at possible unresolved feelings towards him.
Around 2005 or 2006, Joel Coen thought of a possible scenario for a film: what if a folk singer was beaten up outside a Greenwich Village nightclub in 1961? It stayed with him for years and with his brother Ethan they decided to come up with a film that would explain this incident. The Coens liked the early 1960s era of folk music and were drawn to Dave Van Ronk’s posthumous memoir The Mayor of MacDougal Street because it was a “document of its time,” and really gave “a sense of what it was like to be a working musician at that time,” said Ethan in an interview. They decided to option the book with the notion of using aspects of the musician’s life in their film. Van Ronk moved to Greenwich Village as a teenager and spent the next five decades there recording several albums that mixed blues, jazz and sea chanteys. He championed Bob Dylan early on as well as aspiring songwriters like Joni Mitchell.
Similarities to Van Ronk included having Llewyn sing three Van Ronk-associated songs, the faux cover of Llewyn’s solo album is a direct nod to Van Ronk’s 1963 LP Inside Dave Van Ronk. Both Llewyn and Van Ronk spent time in the merchant marines, went to Chicago to audition for the famous Gate of Horn club only to be rejected, and decided not to join a Peter, Paul and Mary-type folk group. That being said, those close to Van Ronk were quick to point out that, personality-wise, Llewyn doesn’t resemble him at all – people slept on his couch not the other way around and he was more philanthropic whereas Llewyn is misanthropic.
The Coens researched the time period by watching various documentaries, variety shows from the era, and read Dylan’s memoir where he talks about the New York music scene when he arrived. Early on, while writing the screenplay, the Coens wanted to reveal at the end that most of the film had been a flashback leading up to the beginning again and then they had to figure out what happened in-between. They also involved legendary music producer T. Bone Burnett, bouncing ideas off of him.
He not only assembled a powerhouse group of musicians to record the soundtrack (that included the likes of Marcus Mumford and the Punch Brothers) but also worked with the cast in recreating the music of the period. The Coens auditioned several famous musicians who were able to nail performing a song, “then we’d ask them to do a scene, and then you’d go, ‘Um, yeah, this isn’t going to work.’ You can get almost anybody who’s got a modicum of talent through a scene, or two, or three, but you can’t do that for an entire movie,” said Joel.
Casting director Ellen Chenoweth suggested Oscar Isaac because he was an actor who could play and sing. She showed the Coens an audition tape and they were impressed enough that they passed it on to Burnett who told them to cast the actor as Llewyn. Burnett was impressed with Isaac’s skills: “I haven’t worked with an actor who could play and sing this style of music this well. You can’t do it with bluster, you have to do it with the rawest honesty you can.” All the songs were done live, from start to finish, sometimes 30 takes of one song. Isaac didn’t mind as he loved the music and had been playing the songs 100 times a day in preparation.
In terms of the film’s look, the Coens used the album cover for The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan as a reference point. They told cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel they wanted “a slushy New York,” he remembered, “We had to feel the winter and that dirty feeling when the snow starts to melt.” He and the Coens decided to shot on film stock because it “seemed appropriate for the period because of the grain structure of the film stock.” Principal photography took place in various locations in and around New York City over six weeks.
Much like the Coens’ A Serious Man (2009), Inside Llewyn Davis is about a protagonist at the mercy of an uncaring world but he’s also in control of certain aspects of his life, always making the wrong decision as if he is out punish himself by taking a harder route. An argument could be made that Llewyn doesn’t want to sell-out and he even accuses Jean of being a careerist at one point, but I think he’s simply punishing himself for being unable to prevent his partner from committing suicide.
“Go lightly from the ledge, babe
Go lightly on the ground
I’m not the one you want, babe
I will only let you down
You say you’re lookin’ for someone
Who will promise never to part
Someone to close his eyes for you
Someone to close his heart
Someone who will die for you an’ more
But it ain’t me, babe”
Despite all the poor decisions and setbacks, Llewyn soldiers on with a determination that is admirable or foolhardy. At the rate he’s going he will always be a struggling musician and mainstream success will elude him. As if to reinforce the point, the film ends with Llewyn leaving a nightclub he frequents just as a young Bob Dylan takes the stage and begins to play. He has grown tired of the daily grind of a struggling musician and the Coens refuse to romanticize it. Instead, they opt for their usual objective viewpoint that presents a world and the characters that inhabit it without judgment. As a result, they are sometimes mistakenly accused of not caring about their characters, which is not true. A lot of work went into constructing the world of Inside Llewyn Davis and the creation of a complex character as Llewyn. They are helped considerably by Davis’ wonderful performance. For every Bob Dylan that makes it big there are all kinds of Llewyn Davises that do not for various reasons. Their stories are just as interesting and worth telling as Llewyn’s.
B, Benjamin. “Folk Implosion.” American Cinematographer. January 2014.
Browne, David. “Meet the Folks Singer Who Inspired Inside Llewyn Davis.” Rolling Stone. December 2, 2013.
Cieply, Michael. “MacDougal Street Homesick Blues.” The New York Times. January 27, 2013.
Hiatt, Brian. “The Coen Brothers’ Classic Folk Tale: Behind Inside Llewyn Davis.” Rolling Stone. November 21, 2013.
Inside Llewyn Davis Production Notes. 2013.
Nicholson, Amy. “Interview: Oscar Isaac of Inside Llewyn Davis.” Village Voice. December 4, 2013.
Rohter, Larry. “For a Village Troubadour, a Late Encore.” The New York Times. December 5, 2013.
Ryzik, Melena. “30 Takes of One Song? No Sweat for Llewyn’s Star.” The New York Times. December 6, 2013.