There is a scene in Inside Llewyn Davis where the main character screams, “I hate fucking folk music.” And as I'm watching, this being well into the film, I'm thinking, yeah, so do I Llewyn. Inside Llewyn Davis isn't a bad movie; the Coen brothers don't make bad movies...ever. But they do make some that are a little cold, obscure and very difficult to embrace.
For me, this is one of those. The movie is set in 1961 and gives us a week in the life of folk singer Llewyn Davis who is fictional amalgam of Dave Van Ronk and maybe the future tragic figure of Phil Ochs. Is there an insight here into the folk revival of the early 60's in Greenwich Village? I don't know. Like all Coen movies there is a sly skein of humour knitting together scenes and holding the film together. John Goodman turns in one of his usual superb performances as a particularly taciturn and scornful jazz-man who doesn't even consider folk music, music, and therefore the folk troubadours like Llewyn are beneath contempt. Now Llewyn himself is not overly commercial however he does record one cheesy novelty song as part of a trio. And herein lies my problem with the folk revival movement of this period; for every Dave Van Ronk, Phil Ochs, Pete Seeger and The Weavers, Clancy Brothers and Ramblin' Jack Elliott, there is a counterpart like The Rooftop Singers, The Kingston Trio, The New Christy Minstrels and even, forgive the sacrilege, Peter, Paul & Mary.
Music of the early 60's is weak unless we are talking about jazz. The pop is a sugary schmaltz confection of “Bobby's” and “Shelly's” over-emoting the angst of never-ending teen love. The jazz of this folk revival period is truly revolutionary and astounding. Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Lee Morgan, Wayne Shorter to name but a few, are releasing monumental works. Folk of the period is stuck somewhere in between. They want to be the voice of liberal America but someone like Woody Guthrie is a little too leftwing for this Red scared and scarred epoch of J. Edgar Hoover. And thus a tepid interpretation of a murder ballad like "Tom Dooley" makes you one of the stars the era.
At the end of the film Llewyn finishes a set and is followed by a newcomer, Bob Dylan. You can see there is something new on the horizon. Llewyn goes out into the alley behind the club where he is assaulted probably for the second time (it happens at the beginning of the film as well) by an unknown assailant who this time identifies himself as the husband of a performer Llewyn has harassed mercilessly on stage earlier. He deserves the beating and he knows it. The scene with Dylan reminded me of the old 1979 film, The Wanderers by Philip Kaufman (The Right Stuff, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Henry & June) which is set during a similar time-frame, 1963. In Kaufman's film the protagonist who is a fan of 50's & early 60's rock & roll is spying through a club window as his ex-girlfriend watches Bob Dylan perform "The Times They Are A Changing." Not subtle, but effective. And a film I'd have to say I found a lot more enjoyable. And that's a shame.
On the plus side, Dave Van Ronk's bluesy Green, Green Rocky Road played over the closing credits showcases just how wonderful his music is.