“Inside Llewyn Davis” Hits the Right Notes… For Some

From Geek Goes Rogue TV Editor Zach W. Lorton, as told to by the acoustic guitar that sees dust more often than it sees my hands…

Christmas Day was weird in geekland — it was the first Christmas Day in 10 years of marriage that my wife Julie and I actually had the entire day to ourselves, and we took full advantage of the time.  We relaxed, had Chinese food, and took in a movie.  Then only in limited release, Inside Llewyin Davis was playing at only one theater in the
St. Louis area, so we trekked over to watch the flickering lights of 1961, as told by the Coen Brothers (the film released everywhere today).

It’s not often that an honest look at a musician’s life comes along.  In this day of 140-character jokes, instant fame, and “reality” competitions that launch careers of a select few but allow most to fade into obscurity and insignificance, it’s nice to see a film talking about musicians making art for the sake of the make.  While money is never the prime factor for any musician, we’ve got to eat, too.  Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) awakens in someone else’s apartment, eats breakfast, tinkers with his guitar, leaves a note, and then leaves, yet allows the occupant’s cat to escape with him.  The cat becomes his begrudging companion for part of the film, and also provides the punch line from time to time.

Davis’ music is raw, performed with grace and confident humility, and Isaac gives a tremendous performance as the title character.  Having previously been part of a relatively successful folk duo before his partner committed suicide, Davis is frustrated that his current solo album isn’t shaking the columns.  His music is ringing through the Gaslight Cafe in New York City, but it’s not doing a lot to pay the bills.  Davis takes a playing gig in studio with an acquaintance, Jim (played with great aloofness by Justin Timberlake), but is surprised by the fluffy poppiness of the song, and while he’ll play for the money, his ache won’t let him take that route himself.  He must put his own music out in order to maintain a sense of integrity.

Joel and Ethan Coen do an excellent job of recreating the atmosphere of the early 1960s, right down to the furniture and the vehicles.  The idea that the musician must be true to the music inside of him drives Davis to continually seek out ways that he can play, but also try to make a living.  And this is where the movie succeeds, at speaking to artists.  The passionate needs of creative types often stand in contrast to their practical needs.  While Davis’ music speaks with a gentle yearning, one that cannot easily be ignored, the man himself acts out from his frustrations, making enemies and lashing out at people who see him as a novelty-type friend.

Still, Davis maintains connections with people, and while his methods aren’t anything to be proud of, he works for his survival in a world that isn’t set up to give musicians a free ride.  His distaste for the popular music of the day, the stuff that everyone likes and that actually sells, will be shared by some viewers and perplex others.  Therein lies what some would call a problem with the movie, that it doesn’t relate to everybody.  To be sure, this isn’t a universal message of hard work and dedication overcoming all odds; this is a slice-of-life story about a man making bad decisions, but always trying to take another step forward.

The film’s music is supervised by Oscar winner T Bone Burnett (the brainchild behind the wondrous music from the Coens’ film O Brother, Where Art Thou?), and includes a couple old folk staples, including Hedy West’s “Five Hundred Miles” and a few other traditional folk songs.  The films is satisfyingly rapturous when the music is going, but as soon as the songs are over, reality sets in for everyone, and we deal with mundane stuff of life.  A film that features a road trip, Inside Llewyn Davis isn’t a road trip movie, but it is most definitely a journey, one worth taking.

Zach W. Lorton is a media producer and professional DJ/MC by trade, and a comedian, actor, and musician by default.  His debut music project is set to begin recording in 2014, and will likely take the world by storm, possibly in the form of a Sharknado.

  • http://coolingtwilight.com/ Dan Wilkinson

    “The idea that the musician must be true to the music inside of him”

    I’m not convinced that Llewyn had much music left inside of him. Sure, he was more than competent in what he played. But in the end his performances had a certain safe sterility that kept the listener at a distance. I was particularly struck by his performance of “The Death of Queen Jane” — is this what was deep inside him yearning to get a out? A historical love story? For me, this stands in stark contrast to a certain other musician *wink* that we glimpse at the end of the film — someone whose music exhibits a raw vulnerability and passion that’s almost entirely lacking in Llewyn’s.


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