I am increasingly convinced that the Coen Brothers are not just making movies. Maybe they never were. Rather, they are exploring the core myths that have come to define contemporary American culture. Their films, which are equal parts dark, bizarre, and funny, are not simply offering a re-visioning of history or a nostalgic paean to a bygone era. Instead, they are actually giving us new metaphors to understand who we are and how we might make sense of this big mess of a world we all inhabit together.
Llewyn Davis is a singer-songwriter who is trying to make it as a solo performer in the Greenwich Village folk scene in 1961. Llewyn’s solo career was a failure before it even started. Like every other character in the film, Llewyn is mourning a loss – a palpable absence that has cemented his identity as a musical act, an artist, and a human being.
So Llewyn does the only thing he knows how to do. He plays music. Without overstating the matter, this music is nothing short of beautiful—breathtaking even. From the opening lines of “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” to the closing “Fare Thee Well,” the audience experiences not an integrated marketing scheme (although it surely is effective marketing; I purchased the soundtrack), but a series of performances by Oscar Isaac that are as intimate as they are captivating.
If the film only featured these musical numbers, Isaac’s performance would still be deserving of the recognition it has already received. Through his eyes, his posture, his voice, and his guitar, we are caught up in Llewyn’s pain, longing, ambition, dissatisfaction, and lost-ness. Significantly, this is one of the hallmarks of folk music in particular and the folk tradition in general. Folk is a musical tradition that finds meaning in the performer’s ability to “connect” with his or her audience. There can be no separation between folk “stars” and folk “fans” because music—real music— is about fully integrating one’s art with one’s life. Music making is pure and true only when it is collective and participatory.
What is more, almost all of these folk songs, most of which were written expressly for the film, are played in their entirety. This is certainly not the norm for most Hollywood fare. Time is money after all, and there is precious little time or money to waste when it comes to pleasing modern audiences. The result is that we are forced to sit with Llewyn and to be present with this lonely man in his misery. To borrow a metaphor from the Jewish religious tradition from which the Coens often draw, it is almost as if the audience is asked to participate in the act of sitting shiva – coming alongside the mourner not in an effort to “fix” anything but to simply be present with him. For many filmgoers, sitting shiva with Llewyn will be uncomfortable. But this is just as it should be. Loss is painful, but processing loss alone is torturous. Like the folk musician and his audience, it turns out that we really do need each other.
Joel and Ethan Coen are masterful at using music to carry their narratives. Inside Llewyn Davis is not a musical, but it is musical through and through. As they did famously with O Brother Where Art Thou?, the Coens enlist the likes of T-Bone Burnett, Marcus Mumford, and even Justin Timberlake (!) to give voice to Llewyn’s desperate longing to live, love, and create with some semblance of authenticity.
And that is the key word when it comes to folk music – authenticity. The folk tradition is quite explicit in its critique of popular music’s commercialized artifice. Music is not something that anyone can “own.” It can’t be “sold” or “purchased.” It isn’t created with a marketable demographic in mind. According to the folk imagination, commercial pop might be something, but it surely isn’t real music, for commodifying forces can only dis-integrate and defile what ought to be whole and pure and true. Robert Cantwell describes this notion well in his exploration of the folk revival of the 50’s and 60’s, which drew on a vision of the “Old Free America.” “The [folk] revival made the romantic claim of folk culture – oral, immediate, traditional, idiomatic, communal, a culture of characters, of rights, obligations, and beliefs, against a centrist, specialist, impersonal technocratic culture, a culture of types, functions, jobs and goals.”
Of course, these distinctions between folk music and commercially successful music reveal a great irony – one that Llewyn very much embodies. Because he is a “genuine” folk musician, Llewyn is almost required to look upon everyone who actually succeeds in gaining a popular following as a superficial, talent-less commodity – even if they happen to be his closest friends. It isn’t that he thinks their music is bad. It’s just that he doesn’t understand why people connect with that music but not his. What do other performers have that he doesn’t? Are they more sincere, more authentic, more … folk?
The irony is that Llewyn’s own story is a quest to obtain the very thing that he believes to be artistically bankrupt. (This irony is made all the more rich in light of the fact that the most successful “folk artist” in the film is played by none other than Justin Timberlake, and this is to say nothing of the significant contribution by the commercially successful, real-life folk artist Marcus Mumford.) In perhaps the most heart-rending scene in the film, Llewyn literally plays his heart out for music producer Bud Grossman. Grossman instructs Llewyn to “play me something from Inside Llewyn Davis.” Llewyn complies by performing an engrossing, melancholic song that will lure the viewer’s heart out of her chest and leave it throbbing on the floor of the theater. Grossman’s response: “I don’t see any money in this.” For all the authenticity in the world, nobody’s buying what Llewyn is selling.
It is probably not a uniquely American phenomenon, but it seems that, much like Llewyn, Americans live with a rather fractured sense of their own self-worth. On the one hand, the enduring myths that shape our identity tell us a story about a people who desire to live a life of meaning and integrity – to fashion something good, true, and beautiful even in the most trying of circumstances. This stands at the heart of the American folk sensibility.
But those same myths often blur the lines between our desire to create something with integrity and our even more powerful impulse to achieve individual notoriety at all costs. In part, this ambivalence is simply a reflection of the world of late-capitalism. Everything is bought and sold. Everyone is a commodity. But on a deeper level, it helps explain why it is so difficult for Americans when someone else has taken center stage and we find ourselves outside in the gutter, for we want both the authenticity of folk and the glamour of commercial pop. We long for substance, but sometimes we just can’t seem to get over ourselves.
So here’s my thought. Could it be that this film is less about folk music and more about humility? What if we spent a little more time writing songs from the gutter instead of for the stage? What if we embraced what is truly great about the American identity and said “au revoir” once and for all to the misguided notion that we have some kind of privileged access to that which is authentic, or pure, or even true? The real truth is that, whether we are a causal fan, a folk legend, or a pop superstar, our lives are marked by pain and loss. The world appears dark and chaotic. Death is the great leveler, and the only way forward is to recognize that we need each other – desperately. At the end of the day, there may very well be no money in it, but at least it’s a song I can sing.
[This last paragraph SPOILS the end of the movie. I almost cut it, but it’s just too good. Read it after you’ve seen the movie. – Editor]
The movie ends with Llewyn in a New York City gutter, in the middle of winter, with no coat, spitting blood out of his mouth after being pummeled by the husband of a fellow folk musician whom Llewyn had harangued the night before. He has just been replaced on stage by Bob Dylan, who plays – fittingly – “Farewell.” Llewyn echoes Dylan’s lyrics with his final words: “Au Revoir.” Here then is our metaphor. Alone. In the Gutter. No coat. Middle of Winter. We have lost something that will forever haunt us – a person, a dream, an ideal. For reasons that we simply cannot explain, someone else is playing our song on our stage. And the audience is rapt.