It all started in Washington Square...
December 29, 2013 8:23 PM   Subscribe

The Coen Brothers latest film "Inside Llewyn Davis" is fictional, but it aims to portray the very specific time and place of the Greenwich Village Folk scene in the early 60's. Reviewers have already noted the similarities between the movies characters and some real life counterparts, starting with Llewyn Davis himself and legendary folk singer Dave Van Ronk.

Never heard of him? Well, while he never achieved the fame of those he played and hung out with (including Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell), he was loved by those who worked with him and he performed regularly until his death in 2002 from colon cancer. His biography "The Mayor of MacDougal Street" (cowritten by musician Elijah Wald) was published shortly after his death and is a wonderfully entertaining portrait of his musical career with emphasis on the Greenwich Village years. If the movie leaves you wanting to know more and you can't track down the book, Wald has contributed a lengthy essay over at the movie's website that encapsulates the book nicely.

If you'd like a listen to Van Ronk, here he is singing "Hang Me Oh Hang Me" and "Cocaine Blues" from his 1963 album "Folksinger".

In 1997, he performed "St James Infirmary" at a concert commemorating the 1952 "Anthology of American Folk Music" collection which inspired many folk singers (including Van Ronk) at the time of its release.
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI (42 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite

 
I'd like to recommend The Garden State Stomp, the song that got me to visit Cheesequake.
posted by moonmilk at 9:10 PM on December 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


(I was lucky to see him play in Philly in the 90s, and yeah, he sang the Garden State Stomp.)
posted by moonmilk at 9:13 PM on December 29, 2013


Last month, on my first trip back to NYC in many a year, it was around midnight as I passed under the Washington Square Arch, through the park at a diagonal, to MacDougal Street. On MacDougal, just across from the park, a gaggle of NYU students, 19, 20, 21-year-olds, were spilling out of a building where there must've been a party going on, cause they were mostly pretty inebriated. Loud, happy, etc. Back in the 60s they'd have likely been on their way in or out of some folkie joint a block or two south, to hear Van Ronk or someone like him. Funny thing, too, that's pretty much the thought that went through my mind as I saw them. Not so unusual, I guess, since those of us who've gotten, er, a bit older tend to often view things through prisms of the past.

Strolled a little further down MacDougal and was happy to see that the Cafe Lanterna and the Cafe Reggio are still there. Those were haunts of mine from my first regular visits to the city starting in the late 70s, and indeed after I moved to NYC in the mid-80s I spent a lot of time nursing cappuccinos and such in those places. Though I wasn't old enough to have been on the scene in the 60s, I still, at those times, felt the ghosts of Bob Dylan and Richie Havens et al. around there. I knew about the history, and I liked knowing that Dylan or Joni Mitchell must've certainly, at one time or another, sat at the very same Reggio table where I was scrawling something into my own little notebook of songs.

Looking forward to seeing the new Coen Bros flick.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 9:23 PM on December 29, 2013 [8 favorites]


Nice post, thanks! I just picked up The Mayor of MacDougal Street today and can't wait to start it.

Also, Bowie namechecks him on You Will Set the World On Fire ("Van Ronk says to Bobby, 'She's the next real thing!'").
posted by scody at 9:26 PM on December 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


The Complete Unknowns - A Tribute to Bob Dylan - Monday, Jan. 30th* at the Cafe Wha (also still there!) for those who wanna go the nostalgia route...

*The folks over at the Wha are a little confused as to the month, however
posted by flapjax at midnite at 9:37 PM on December 29, 2013


Never heard of him?! I sing this every time I make meatballs.

My mom's always been a big fan, and I saw Inside Llewyn Davis with her on Christmas day. We all dug it, lots, though it's been hard to find people to chat with about it. Everyone is afraid that something bad happens to the cat and it's so hard to answer that question for them in a satisfying way.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:42 PM on December 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


He figured quite prominently in No Direction Home, Scorsese's Dylan biopic from 2005.
posted by OHenryPacey at 9:45 PM on December 29, 2013


How 'Please Mr. Kennedy' was born and why it's not eligible for Oscar consideration

Great film and great soundtrack, BTW. Also, it has a kitty.
posted by Artw at 10:09 PM on December 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


Seeing this film was unsatisfying. It left me feeling empty, unfulfilled. Like "A Serious Man", the movie is built to summon in the viewer the emotion of the main character. You walk out feeling the theme. Drifting, disjointed, frustrated, almost but not quite getting there. It's grown on me in the following days: thinking about it, talking about it.

The uncompromising, unsuccessful artist is on the edge. He pushes people away, explodes with righteous anger at the least of affronts. His integrity is the only treasure he has, the fuel that keeps him going. To make it, most must compromise. "Making it" depends on society - managers, fellow musicians, journalists. Is the cost of maintaining integrity too high?

And where do we end up, years down the line, once we have scarificed integrity for success? Semi-consciously ranting and shooting up in rest stop bathrooms all the way to Chicago.

Love the Coen brothers. Grateful for the inspiration they provide. For creating exploration that is as ambiguous as the choices we have in life.
posted by yoz420 at 10:17 PM on December 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


The most important thing about Inside Llewyn Davis is that the back of my sister's head is prominently featured in one scene.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 10:31 PM on December 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


Writer and director Todd Allcot has a devastatingly detailed analysis f of ILD's screenplay and how it reflects the themes of creative angst, authenticity, and the premature death of a carrer.
posted by The Whelk at 11:16 PM on December 29, 2013 [4 favorites]


Incidentally, we watched Frances Ha on Christmas Eve and the movies complimented one another very well in theme and setting, even if they did make me all kinds of depressed about, like, the life of an artist.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 1:23 AM on December 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


'Please Mr. Kennedy'

Dear. Mr. President
posted by drjimmy11 at 3:13 AM on December 30, 2013


And I want to see this movie, it seems right up my alley except...

The things that's so tough about movies about fictional musicians (as distinct from jukebox movies like WALK THE LINE) is that you have to do everything necessary to make a good film, which hardly anyone ever does, and then you need to create really great original music too. Bad music can sink a music film, even if everything else works.

I know they're relying on folk standards to some extent, but the one clip I saw posted on FB featured a Mumford and sounded very very 2013. Not a good sign, but I'll probably still give it a shot, in a quest to actually see one decent movie before the year ends.
posted by drjimmy11 at 3:17 AM on December 30, 2013


The John Goodman character shares a name with my father-in-law. Since the first name/last name combination is just unusual enough, we're trying to figure out where or how the Coens would have come across Gentleman Caller's dad. Does anyone know if the Coens' associates have ties to Fairleigh Dickinson College?
posted by pxe2000 at 3:55 AM on December 30, 2013


Saw it last week. The most archly solipsistic and high bourgeois Coen bros movie yet. I found it forgettable, and I love their best work. This film has nothing to do with or say about either the politics or the music of its subject era. Nothing.

I may be mistaken, but was there even a single black character in this movie? Yeah, that's the 60s and American music of that era, right?
posted by spitbull at 4:34 AM on December 30, 2013 [3 favorites]


Also the main character's music just sucked. That nearly ruins the movie.
posted by spitbull at 4:36 AM on December 30, 2013


Terry Van Ronk's critique.
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:06 AM on December 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


Everyone is afraid that something bad happens to the cat and it's so hard to answer that question for them in a satisfying way.

So something bad does happen to the cat?

It's a powerful thing. I couldn't read most of Grant Morrison's The Filth properly because I was worrying about that bloody cat so much of the time.
posted by Grangousier at 6:20 AM on December 30, 2013


SPOILER: There is an ambiguous scene on a snowy highway in which a cat may or may not run in front of Llewen's car.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 6:38 AM on December 30, 2013


The most archly solipsistic and high bourgeois Coen bros movie yet.

Of course, it's a movie about 1960s folk music in New York, so solipsistic and bourgeois are the only appropriate notes to hit.

For me this stuff falls into "music my parents listened to" which is, predictably, hard for me to get excited about. I totally get it that it was cool and even edgy in its day, but that's not how I experience it.

That said, I love most of the Coen movies, so I know I will see this and probably really enjoy it despite the music.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:08 AM on December 30, 2013


There are interesting things to be said about success in the arts. From my position on the sidelines, it's not always the most talented who necessarily make it.

Successful people have a weird take on success. So called un-successful people are called bitter if they try to talk about it.

I'm having a hard time bringing myself to watch Frances Ha, and I'm troubled by what I'm hearing about Inside Llewyn Davis.
posted by maggiemaggie at 7:10 AM on December 30, 2013


Am I the only one who owns a Jim & Jean record (and actually likes some of it)?
posted by plasticpalacealice at 7:22 AM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


/frowns at cat spoilers.
posted by Artw at 7:27 AM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm having a hard time bringing myself to watch Frances Ha, and I'm troubled by what I'm hearing about Inside Llewyn Davis.

I don't think you should be. Both are about unsuccessful stretches in the careers of individual artists but we're given little reason to think that either artists' career will end in stagnation ultimately. Honestly, I think that there's little talk about narratives of failure or difficulty in our society, and I think that's troubling; it creates the illusion that art is easy. And it's not.

Also, I thought the music was really, really good. The song choices were excellent (folk fan mother was singing along to most of them) and Llewyn's music was performed with a really powerful emotional range.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:41 AM on December 30, 2013 [4 favorites]


I'm having a hard time bringing myself to watch Frances Ha, and I'm troubled by what I'm hearing about Inside Llewyn Davis.

I don't think you should be. Both are about unsuccessful stretches in the careers of individual artists but we're given little reason to think that either artists' career will end in stagnation ultimately. Honestly, I think that there's little talk about narratives of failure or difficulty in our society, and I think that's troubling; it creates the illusion that art is easy. And it's not.


My peeve with seeing films about people failing at art is that it feels jarring to know that the person who made the film is a successful artist. )This may say more about me than that particular genre of film.) It's weird to know that Frances Ha, while not necessarily at the end of her career, is certainly not getting the career she wanted, while at the same time knowing that Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig are both reasonably hot Hollywood properties.

(Frances Ha is a fine movie, I should add. But I learned about it from MeFites who described it as "uplifting", and now I kind of want to punch them in the nose.)
posted by Going To Maine at 9:01 AM on December 30, 2013


(Not really! No nose punching for anyone.)
posted by Going To Maine at 9:02 AM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think the question of whether or not the film accurately represents the folk scene of the period is a bit orthogonal to the film -- Miller's Crossing isn't a very good representation of New Orleans in the 20s, Barton Fink isn't a very good representation of Hollywood in the 40s, A Serious Man isn't a very good representation of St. Louis Park in the 60s. These are highly fictionalized versions that borrow from history without claiming to represent it, in order to explore stories that the brothers want to tell. Had the film been called Inside Dave Van Ronk, I would have wanted them to strive for representing history well. Because it's called Inside Llewyn Davis, I just want them to represent their own story well.

And they do, although it's a bit of a glum story about a fellow who is a bit of a dick and doesn't have a lot of luck, and the moment when he has to decide whether a career as a folk performer is something he wants to continue to pursue. And hidden in the story is a critique -- or at least a nod to -- the false narratives of a supposedly authentic musical form. There are the groups that are going to become successful, and they are as manufactured as pop stars. There is the music, which comes from everywhere but New York and is being remolded into something palatable to New York audiences and eventually to a national audience (Llewyn, after Van Ronk, is part of that remolding, revamping older folk structures into more typical American popular songwriting structures and adding in ragtime elements). There is a singing cowboy who is actually a Jewish New Yorker, after Ramblin' Jack Elliot. There are three chord party songs masquerading as folk protest songs. And none of the characters work at the sort of working class jobs their songs celebrate, except Llewyn, who comes from a merchant marine family, but does not sing songs of longshoremen or stevedores or sailors. Llewyn Davis is surrounded by careerists, who he sees as squares, but he himself treats his music as a miserable job, and not a joyful artistic act.

But more than anything, I think the theme of the film is how it is possible to lose one's way when you lose somebody. How, without knowing why, you suddenly feel like you're incomplete, and others can sense that incompleteness, and how it is impossible to keep yourself out of your art, as others will find you telling your secrets through your art, even when you don't know you're doing it. Llewyn's trip to Chicago is the centerpiece of the film, and he's traveling with a man who is helpless without his partner, and Llewyn reveals his own loss, and when he arrives in Chicago, he is told that his act is incomplete.

And everything about his life is incomplete. He doesn't have a home. He doesn't have a coat. His father is absent due to illness, and he himself is a sort of absent father due to his own ignorance. He's too broken even to get a credit or royalties on a somebody else's album, and his own album is remaindered and mostly thrown out, but for a few in a crate that he has nowhere to keep.

And yet reminders of the person he lost is around him always, everywhere he goes, on album covers, in harmony parts, and in the fact that people know that something is missing.

The film is, to my mind, a meditation on the absence that a death can cause, the hole left in the world in the shape of the person who once filled it. It's very sad but very true, and much more important than whether this represents the Greenwich Village folk scene with documentary accuracy.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 9:06 AM on December 30, 2013 [21 favorites]


Dr. Ultramod, if you were to start a blog project based on in-depth thoughts on each of the Coens' films, I would read the fuck out of it.
posted by COBRA! at 9:17 AM on December 30, 2013 [4 favorites]


My peeve with seeing films about people failing at art is that it feels jarring to know that the person who made the film is a successful artist.

Honestly, I know very, very few successful artists who haven't grappled with questions of authenticity or selling out. With Llewyn, we really don't know whether he's going to be successful or not--the end of the film might be his downfall (some on IMDB have suggested that he kills himself after the conclusion; an interesting theory but not absolutely supported, I don't think) or the beginning of a resurgence, as is the case for Frances Ha. Navigating the limits of your own art and abilities and recognizing yourself for who you really are--a choreographer rather than a dancer, a powerful artist within a group but not someone who is able to jump through commercial hoops alone--feels triumphant to me, not sad. It's self-recognition. I saw a description (somewhere) of Frances Ha as being about artists at the 91st percentile. This experience is more universal than success at the 99th but almost never discussed. I guess I see them as, ultimately, stories worth telling--and if we need artists at the 99th percentile to get those stories told, then so be it.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:24 AM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


Bunny Ultramod and others have given a really good picture of the themes of the movie, but I do feel like the Coens are trying to squeeze a lot in to one movie - tell a particular story, but also lovingly evoke the pre-Bob Dylan Greenwich Village music scene. I don't know that that entirely worked but it was a good effort. The folk music revival and Village music scene of the era (folk revival started in the 50's btw), definitely had some laughable moments (and got mocked fairly early on), but there was some genuinely great music as well and it is nice to see some attention paid.

Re the music, Showtime is currently showing a concert film (of a benefit concert) "Another Day, Another Time: Celebrating The Music Of 'Inside Llewyn Davis'". The music for that was absolutely great (I now heart Rhiannon Giddens). Mr. gudrun is in no way a folkie and came in on me watching it and was captivated. Nonesuch is going to release an album soon.
posted by gudrun at 9:27 AM on December 30, 2013


I found it to be a very mean-spirited movie, which is *not* what that era was about. The scene between Davis and his father just epitomized that "nyah-nyah, tricked ya! no sentimentality here!" ethos that the Coens seem to enjoy doing. If a movie about the folk music scene in the 60s can't have one moment of heart-felt connection, it's missing the point, IMO.
posted by jasper411 at 11:29 AM on December 30, 2013


I think it's important to remember every Cohen Brothers script seemingly starts with "So there's this idiot...."
posted by The Whelk at 11:33 AM on December 30, 2013 [6 favorites]


Nobody has yet done a movie about the period that I actually thought did justice to the times. Judging by comments about this movie, I'm pretty sure Inside LLewyn Davis hasn't.

I can't tell whether DVR would be grinning or spinning in his grave over this. I enjoy historical fiction. For example, I like Clavell's Shogun, but not so much the movie derived from it. This was a case where historical events were adapted to the plot bones of a story line, and totally fictional characters were drawn from people who actually lived. Maybe I would look at this differently--maybe I wouldn't have liked Shogun at all--if I were descended from Eiyasu Tokugawa or John Adams, so there's that.

But the period from about 1960 to 1975 was the time of my youth, and it has that sort of personal meaning to me. I guess it's precious of me to presume, but, considering my proprietary attitude about my own past, it's not too unusual for me to notice that the Cohen bros, in this case, once again are fucking with things instead of explaining them.

The music of the era in a significant part of my internal furniture. I agree that most songs of the era are trash, but they were my trash. Dave Van Ronk isn't someone I like to see trivialized.

Go Dave.
posted by mule98J at 11:54 AM on December 30, 2013


The Coen Brothers latest film . . .

Pass.

Last month, on my first trip back to NYC in many a year, it was around midnight as I passed under the Washington Square Arch, through the park at a diagonal, to MacDougal Street. . . .

The first time I was in the Village on my own, I got turned around at one point and realized that I was literally standing on the corner of Bleecker and MacDougal, wondering which way to go.* Oddly enough, this occurred shortly after kicking down the cobblestones on the 59th Street Bridge**.



Maybe you had to be there.

------------------------------------------------------------
*  Yes, I realize that's Fred Neil, not Dave Von Ronk.
**Yes . . . yes. Still.
posted by Herodios at 11:59 AM on December 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


The movie's not so much about lovingly capturing the time period. At all, really. Very specific audiences will be drawn to a movie that seems to lovingly capture the Greenwich Village folk scene, and the Coens are aware of that, and like they usually do, they're playing with that audience. They know that we have enough rose-tinted glimpses into the halcyon days, and they're after something different and darker. It's a treatise on "folk" forms and what that means today. It's a glimpse into the creeping commercialism and market forces within the 60's folk revival, and how it exposed the myth of authenticity within the music. It's about what it means for an art form to front as "soul-baring" and "working class" when it's moving ever further away from that. Maybe in some sense it's as much about 2013 "authentic music" made by urban hipsters - the Mumfords of the world - as it is the 60s era. Revivals of revivals. There's much more to the movie, of course, but that stuff resonates. It's up there with A Serious Man and Barton Fink as one of the most thematically complex and murky Coen films.
posted by naju at 12:44 PM on December 30, 2013 [5 favorites]


Yep, I think naju has a good point with this bit about the movie itself: Maybe in some sense it's as much about 2013 "authentic music" made by urban hipsters - the Mumfords of the world - as it is the 60s era. Revivals of revivals.

However, the Coens genuinely seem to respond to the music from the era - I say this partly based on having seen the concert film I referred to above, "Another Day, Another Time", with which the Coens were involved.
posted by gudrun at 1:09 PM on December 30, 2013


Wow, The Whelk's link above is a real goldmine.
posted by naju at 1:41 PM on December 30, 2013


If you really want to understand the time, see the movie Mo Direction Home and read The Mayor of MacDougal Street. Preferably at the same time. Coen Bros. movies are about something other than understanding history, which is as it should be.
posted by Obscure Reference at 4:46 AM on December 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


Many years ago I stole my mother's Dave Van Ronk records. This year I thought, "I know! I'm going to to digitize them for her for Christmas!" I got all excited and got the turn table cleaned up and found the right patch cable and everything... and then realized she had, at some point, stolen the records back. So my great surprise present won't be a surprise after all, but she says she will still love it.

The movie hasn't made it to my town yet, but when it does, we are going to take turns babysitting my toddler so we can each go see it. Folk music is inherently about the impossibility of authenticity, so a movie attempting to recreate it seems sort of perfect to me. Either I will love it or I will love trashing it.
posted by newrambler at 8:49 AM on December 31, 2013


After seeing O Brother and Llewyn, I now want to see what the Coens would do with something like The Heebie Jeebies at CBGB's.
posted by pxe2000 at 11:31 AM on December 31, 2013


I forget which review or analysis of the film I heard, but someone observed that Llewyn Davis wasn't necessarily enough of a performer - it was more like, life is squeezing him and these are the noises he makes in response.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:42 PM on December 31, 2013


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