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Review: Inside Llewyn Davis – Odd folk music odyssey

Posted by on December 20, 2013 – 7:45 am

Inside Llewyn Davis“Gather ’round people, wherever you roam,” the Coen brothers have now tackled the Greenwich Village folk music scene of the early Sixties with Inside Llewyn Davis, an entertaining odyssey of oddball characters and obscure references that might leave many moviegoers out in the cold.

I love Joel and Ethan Coen’s films, every one of them from Blood Simple to No Country for Old Men (with The Hudsucker Proxy and Raising Arizona being my favorites.) Their quirky and unorthodox stories and filmmaking methods always deliver a different and entertaining experience, and Inside Llewyn Davis is no exception. But this may be the least accessible movie in their repertoire, depending on your knowledge and/or tolerance of early-Sixties folk music.

Like O Brother, Where Art Thou? (which also had a great mix of folk and bluegrass music), Inside Llewyn Davis loosely taps into Homer’s Odyssey, as Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) traverses the streets of chaotic New York City with a cat named Ulysses, looking for a place to rest his weary head and dreaming of musical stardom.

Despite being a decent musician, Llewyn is a pretentious jerk, and he’s having a really bad week. He’s broke, he doesn’t have a home, his family, friends and manager dislike him, his best friend’s girlfriend (Carey Mulligan) is pregnant with what may be his child, and he’s severed ties with a hipster couple who have graciously given him food and shelter in return for showing him off to their friends.

The down on his luck Llewyn makes a last ditch effort to save his musical career, before giving up and returning to the Merchant Marines, and takes a road trip to Chicago to try to meet and impress the famous manager Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham.) He ends up carpooling to the cold and windy city with a jazz musician, Roland Turner (John Goodman) and his James Dean wannabe driver, Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund), who barely speaks, while Roland talks incessantly (when he’s awake.)

Inside Llewyn DavisIf you dig folk music, then that’s a big plus for you as there are several old standards played in their entirety by the performers in this film. That means the songs, like “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” and “Five Hundred Miles” to name a couple, are covered in whole by the actors from start to finish, like a music video with just the performers on stage singing.

The score and soundtrack are produced by T Bone Burnett and it is good music to be sure, but not the most visually exciting aspect of this film – although the performance of “Please Mr. Kennedy” by Justin Timberlake, Oscar Isaac and Adam Driver is a lot of fun to watch.

Inside Llewyn Davis is a small, simple story that is mostly just a character study and period piece, but, like all of the Coen brothers films, it is littered with interesting characters, no matter how big or small the part. These guys work cinematic magic with just a short scene of bureaucrat sitting behind a desk.

I’m not a music historian by any means, but if you are I’m sure you’ll appreciate Inside Llewyn Davis’ numerous nods to the folk musicians of Sixties’ New York, like Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary and even Simon and Garfunkel (and I’m sure there are a lot of references that are over my head.)

The performances in this film are excellent (especially Goodman) and the writing and directing is top notch in this very entertaining movie. Fans of the Coens and of folk music are going to enjoy this film a lot more than your general moviegoer, but Inside Llewyn Davis is definitely worth a look and a listen for all. Grade: 8.5/10

Photos © 2013 CBS Films

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