“If it was never new and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song,” explains the fictional folk singer at the center of Joel and Ethan Coen's brooding and utterly original film, Inside Llewyn Davis. It’s an apt description of a style of music unique to a particular time and place: New York City’s Greenwich Village just before Bob Dylan arrived (in February 1961) and everything began to change. Those words also serve as an elegy for the era lovingly recreated by the film — one that lacks the cultural currency of both the Beat Generation that preceded it and the rock ’n’ roll era that followed. But the Coens find something universal in this unlikely setting, a window on the price paid by artists of any time who value authenticity above all else. As brilliantly played and sung by musician-turned-actor Oscar Isaac, Davis represents the legions of artists with enough talent to earn a wide audience but who mostly fall victim to bad timing, their own poor choices or the harsh realities of the culture industries.
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Inside Llewyn Davis doesn’t have a plot in the conventional sense. Ending at a slightly altered version of where it began, the film follows its protagonist through a few ordinary but revealing days. Davis couch surfs his way across New York City, repeatedly wearing out his welcome among family and friends who want to support him. He’s unsure how to jump start his solo career after the loss of a musical partner with whom he enjoyed modest success as a duo. Isaac, who has mostly appeared in small parts in movies including Drive and The Bourne Legacy, does a remarkable job of keeping us engaged with an essentially unlikable character. Justin Timberlake is equally effective as an impossibly earnest folk singer who doesn’t know his friend Davis has done him wrong. Lushly shot by French cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel and period accurate down to the last visual detail, the film is wintry and sad but achingly beautiful. It’s very loosely based on a memoir by folk singer Dave Van Ronk. But like all Coen brothers movies from Blood Simple to Fargo to The Big Lebowski, it seems to exist in a familiar yet oddly skewed version of the world.
The film’s bountiful music is presented in a way unlike that of any other movie in memory. Isaac, Timberlake and other actors perform complete songs without lip synching or off-screen accompaniment under the watchful eye of roots-music maestro T Bone Burnett. All find new depth in songs originally sung by their real-life counterparts, and there’s not a hint of the irony or condescension one might expect given the far more cynical vantage point of today. John Goodman arrives out of nowhere midway through the film to play a veteran jazz musician with a big mouth and serious problem. Just by casually (and hilariously) calling Davis “Cowboy Chords,” Goodman’s character spotlights the cultural isolation of the humble folk singer. With hindsight, the movement’s sincerity and reverence for the traditions of the past may seem quaint, but its music helped lay the foundation for the roots-inspired sounds that now thrive in every corner of the globe. As any struggling artist can tell you, authenticity has to be its own reward.
Inside Llewyn Davis beings an exclusive run tonight, Thursday, December 19, at The Theatres at Canal Place.