The Coen Brothers transport us back in time to the 1960s folk music scene in their 2013 smart and funny masterpiece, Inside Llewyn Davis.
I’m writing this review while listening to the Cannes press conference following the film’s premiere in May 2013. Not that it has anything to do with the film–other then the Coens being Jewish–but there was a question from a German TV reporter about humor in Germany and whether it was German or Jewish, after suggesting that World War II and the Holocaust were responsible for the lack of humor. “What do you think–does it exist? If so, how would you describe it?” How did I not know about this question, let alone press conference in 2013?!?
T Bone Burnett:
‘”You don’t want to run off the smart people, first of all…I have to say that is a really provocative and even fascinating question and I’d want to investigate that. I’m very interested in that question. I’m serious–is that a real thing that’s happening in Germany? Is that a thing that’s happening in Germany? There’s a re-examination of actual Jewish humor? G-d almighty, what a beautiful thing. Seriously!…Well, that’s a good thing to do. A lot of times, if you make a mistake, the only progress you can make is by going back and figuring out the mistake so that’s a beautiful thing.”
“There’s nothing like a Holocaust to put the stake in a certain kind of humor. I really don’t know how to answer that.”
What a Coen Brothers way to respond. I mean, there’s a time and place to ask about humor but I’m not so sure that the Inside Llewyn Davis premiere is the place. I’m sorry. I’ve listen to the comments multiple times now and cannot get enough of it. It’s just too funny and now you get both that and a film review!
Much like O Brother, Where Art Thou? did for the 1930s, this film does for the 1960s in a way. I say this more so in terms of music and less so on the black comedy side of things. That’s not to say that the film isn’t a black comedy because it most definitely is. Anyway, it’s interesting to look back on a decade ago and realize that this is Oscar Isaac’s big breakthrough. A few months following the film’s release, both Isaac and Adam Driver found themselves joining the Star Wars sequel trilogy when they were cast in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Who would have guessed this when they were singing “Please Mr. Kennedy” with Justin Timberlake. Speaking of which, that song should have earned an Oscar nomination!
The plot of Inside Llewyn Davis is fairly simple and revolves around a cat. Okay, in all seriousness, we follow Llewyn Davis over the course of a week in 1961 against the backdrop of Greenwich Village’s folk scene. Davis, like other musical artists, is struggling with his career. There’s no shortage of obstacles as he sets out to blaze a trail in the music scene. Of course, some of this is because of his own doing. I mean, you’re shooting yourself in the foot when you make fun of folk music! Anyway, the folk music scene plays a big role in the film, more so than the 4-6 cats used in the film, and they do fine job in bringing the scene back to life. There’s also the Bob Dylan question of how do you address him during this time, too.
The Coens use Dave Van Ronk’s music as a starting point for the film. The late singer’s autobiography is said to be an inspiration for the film, including some scenes in the film. However, Davis is a fictional character and we get to experience the 1960s folks scene through his lens, for better or worse. It can get bleak and dark at times especially given how much of a struggle it can be to make a living as an artist. The Coens, on the other hand, do not disappoint. They’ve never made a bad film to date. Obviously, they have some films that do not quite work for me but that’s another story. Anyway, they did receive some criticism for Davis’s portrayal, let alone the folk scene. At the end of the day though, Davis is a original character as described at the Cannes press conference.
“Please Mr. Kennedy” is one of the best songs on the soundtrack. It’s a novelty song but Isaac, Driver, and Justin Timberlake sound so great together. Hell, they do an amazing job at selecting the songs for the film–most of which are recorded and performed live for the screen. The Coens reunite with T Bone Burnett while bringing Marcus Mumford along for the ride. Burnett previously worked on O Brother so it’s not unfair to say that the 2013 film is a spiritual descendant of the 2001 film.
The film didn’t get that much love at the Oscars. The only nominations were for cinematography and sound mixing. Surprisingly, they work with Bruno Delbonnel this time around. Roger Deakins was not able to work on the film because of his Skyfall obligations. As phenomenal as Oscar Isaac was in the title role, he was just on the outside looking in with the stacked competition that year. That’s not to say that he doesn’t put in the work because he puts in the work in helping do his part in bringing Llewyn Davis to the screen.
Inside Llewyn Davis is another Coen Brothers masterpiece.
DIRECTORS/SCREENWRITERS: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
CAST: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund, F. Murray Abraham, and Justin Timberlake
CBS Films released Inside Llewyn Davis in theaters on December 6, 2023. Grade: 5/5
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