Starring Oscar Isaac as Llewyn Davis, a ‘folk singer’ who has a stack of unsold albums, and will not surrender his integrity to go commercial, but then he sings an absurd pop song for money. His girlfriend is played by Carey Mulligan, she may or may not be pregnant by him, can he afford the abortion? Davis plays in coffee bars in Greenwich and goes off to Chicago to further his artistic ambitions, travelling there with John Goodman. He auditions for Murray Abrahams who rejects him. Davis meets his father and thinks of joining the merchant navy. He returns to New York and tries to make it again as he insults other acts and gets beaten up for it.
This is set in 1961 Greenwich Village when ‘folk music’ became a middle class fad for ernest young Americans and Brits. Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger inspired the young to political protest (this film was released shortly after Seeger’s death). The young Bob Dylan appears at the end of the film. I remember the fuss about Dylan’s supposed betrayal of folk ideals when that culture was full of people trying to make money and achieve stardom. Dylan tried that phase and then went electric, writing songs that were hilarious pranks played on gullible would be intellectuals, he betrayed nothing. His crime was to be more successful than the rest. Llewyn Davis talks about integrity, but the folk scene for him is merely a self inflicted religion of the nobility of failure and poverty. He poses like a self pitying martyr through a New York lovingly created to remind us of the cover of Dylan’s Free Wheelin album.
The colours are quite muted as in other Coen films and there is the vastness of the American landscape. This film shares with Nebraska and Orange County an acknowledgement of the great emptiness of the mid west and its effect on the mind. On the journey from New York to Chicago the landscape is so bleak it’s like the barest sketch for an Edward Hopper painting. John Goodman plays the Albert Grossman character who is contemptuously cynical of Davis’ artistic aspirations. He passes out in the car and Llewyn leaves him there, his beatnik driver is picked up by the police. This is the reality of the Kerouac scene, the soul destroying drabness of a wasted industrial landscape.
Davis himself is a prick, he self loathingly staggers around thinking that his brutal frankness is a fearless integrity stripping away illusion, rather than a licence to inflict needless self regarding cruelty. Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan play a couple, their folksy wholesomeness contrasting with Davis’ cynical arrogance. Davis’ own songs are not all that wonderful, Murray Abrahams doesn’t think of him as a commercial prospect, so it makes Dylan’s own success from such an unpromising environment all the more surprising.