The Lost World of 'Llewyn Davis': Christgau on the Coen Brothers

Robert Christgau digs into the Coen Brothers' cinematic search for authenticity

Inside Llewyn Davis
Alison Rosa
Oscar Isaac in 'Inside Llewyn Davis.'
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"When you read about the scene you see this mania for authenticity," says Joel Coen, describing what enticed him and his brother Ethan into making Inside Llewyn Davis, a film about folksingers in Greenwich Village just before Bob Dylan touched down and took off. But Coen isn't really praising the folksingers' authenticity – it's their mania that fascinates him. In the very next sentence he goes on: "You have these guys like Elliott Adnopoz, the son of a neurosurgeon from Queens, calling himself Ramblin' Jack Elliott. In the film we have a character who sings and plays a guitar, wears a cowboy hat and calls himself Al Cody. His real name is Arthur Milgram."

Meet the Folk Singer Who Inspired 'Inside Llewyn Davis

My books say Adnopoz grew up in Brooklyn, but Joel didn't have them with him, and you get the idea. What's deemed authentic isn't necessarily what's genuine – it's a word people like to attach to ways of life they believe are somehow truer or deeper or realer or more exciting than the ones they grew up with. So authenticity can also mean spontaneity, sincerity, verisimilitude, accuracy, historical certification. And rather than dimming authenticity's allure, this confusion enhances it. Like Joel Coen, you can see right through the porousness of the concept and be drawn to it anyway – long for it, even. Which is one way of thinking about Inside Llewyn Davis. On the surface level, which is the most important level, the film recounts its protagonist's loused-up and, if you look a little deeper, contradictory struggle for a musical authenticity he never pins down in his own mind. But it's also the Coen Brothers' attempt to achieve other kinds of authenticity, some standard in filmmaking and others less so, including an approach to realism unusual for them.

Understandably, the Coen Brothers and their musical director T Bone Burnett regard Inside Llewyn Davis as a successor to their previous music film, 2000's O Brother, Where Are Thou?, whose soundtrack ascended from the movie-music ghetto to win an Album of the Year Grammy in 2002. And that soundtrack leads directly to this one. "If you trace it back far enough it's all Americana, the same kind of music, the same family tree, the same species of song," says Joel. "We felt the folk music revival of the 50s was in part a revival of the traditional American folk musical forms we'd always been aware of and loved." Yet there are big musical differences between the two films. Most of O Brother's singers and players are either staples of the modern bluegrass circuit or legendary traditional acts like the late prison singer James Carter, gospel's Fairfield Four, and bluegrass pioneers the Stanley Brothers, who the film brought back to commercial life. In Inside Llewyn Davis the singers are generally the actors, most prominently the one who plays Llewyn himself, Juilliard-trained Oscar Isaac, who at 33 seems to have found himself a second income stream.

But how the songs were recorded gets marked down on the other side of authenticity ledger. In O Brother we hear the music in snatches from full versions concocted in the studio by music producer T Bone Burnett. Inside Llewyn Davis sticks to whole songs, recorded live in complete takes and never designed to enhance what Ethan calls "scene setting" – the songs themselves are the scenes. As Burnett explains, complete takes often sound slightly off on film – the singer's timing has to be exceptionally precise. Yet a dozen years further into a digital era that Burnett is convinced represents an "assault" on all the arts, he was down with the Coens' documentary concept: "I think they wanted the reality of it, just the raw reality of it happening right there because you can never quite get that thing in lip-synching."

Oscar Isaac and Justin Timberlake in 'Inside Llewyn Davis.' (Photo: Alison Rosa)

But the raw reality the film documents musically isn't what's normally considered "authentic" — it isn't raw enough. The Coens proudly acknowledge that the film was inspired by the autobiography of long-time Village folksinger Dave Van Ronk, who like their Llewyn Davis hailed from working-class Queens. But they emphasize that Van Ronk's story was only the seed of a fiction, and were pleased to cast Isaac in the title role partly because he's so unlike Van Ronk physically. Listen back to the 1928-1934 artists canonized by the folkies' lodestar, the six-LP Anthology of American Folk Music Harry Smith compiled for Folkways Records in 1952. You'll hear moaning, shouting, keening, murmuring, pinched noses, phlegmy throats, and drawls aplenty. But among the folk revivalists, as Van Ronk's collaborator Elijah Wald puts it in a commonplace compliment that takes on an edge in this context, "nice voices" prevailed. Van Ronk was the rare exception – in part because his equipment didn't leave him many options, he growled and rasped, albeit with considerable delicacy and humor, and thus sounded more authentic if by that you mean remaining true to his 1928-34 models. But if by authentic you mean replicating the folk revival in the week of February 1961, when the film takes place, then Isaac has it right. The way I hear it, there's a slight burr to his nice voice, and a relaxed subtlety to his superb time, that render him more accomplished and enjoyable than his fictional contemporaries. But then, the real-life Isaac only figured out all that subtle stuff after singers had been perfecting the folk revivalists' nice voices for 50 years.

What Burnett calls "documentary feel" gets complicated fast in any fictional film. Because Isaac's singing is so skillful and engaging the music comes off as natural whatever its tiny inaccuracies – although note that the true folk songs are broken up to pleasurable musical effect by the bouncy-catchy sellout "Please Mr. Kennedy," a new song that was tricked up with behind-the-scenes tunesmithing by an authentic pop idol named Justin Timberlake as well as the lead vocal of his character, Jim Berkey. In any case, the documentary feel only begins with the real-time recording – begins before it, actually, with the microphone that fills the first shot, and before the first song is over has invoked the verite touch of the audience member who passes between camera and stage. In a new approach to realism for the Coens (although it also surfaces in 2009's A Serious Man, set in the far blander and less crowded Minneapolis of their childhood), this feel pervades Inside Llewyn Davis.

Coen Brothers films tend shadowy when they're noir like Miller's Crossing or No Country for Old Men and lightly fantastic when they're comic like Raising Arizona or The Big Lebowski. They often suggest legends or cartoons, with O Brother both: explicitly mythic with its Odyssey parallels, it's also a Southern-gothic burlesque. Inside Llewyn Davis is different. For starters, it's a celebration of a real place – a love song to New York City, where the Coen Brothers have long resided but never shot. But its New York was gone before Joel put lawn-mowing money down on his first Super-8 camera in Minneapolis. So the film is in fact an attempt to re-create a more authentic New York City the brothers have only read about. As a fireman's son from Queens who explored Manhattan endlessly in his late teens and settled there when he got out of college in 1962, I have some expertise in this matter, as does my slightly younger wife, who grew up on the same Greenwich Village street immortalized in the Freewheelin' Bob Dylan cover that inspired cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel. Both of us were impressed to see how evocatively the Coens' re-creation succeeded – and also moved.

As moviegoers understand, re-creating the authentic requires fakery. Production designer Jess Gonchor says, "It's getting harder and harder to shoot a period movie in Manhattan. It's changed so much." For Gonchor, the toughest job was reimagining the wall textures and room space of his Gaslight Cafe in a Crown Heights warehouse. He also transformed an East Harlem church into a seamen's union office – and, given a tight budget, shot Chicago scenes in the Gramercy Theater and Burger Heaven on 51st Street and found patches of winter road in Westchester as anonymously flat and desolate as any in the Midwest. Many of the West Village locations were shot in the East Village, and even when half a century has left architecture pretty much intact, decor has evolved so drastically that pre-WW2 apartments had to be substantially retrofurbished. Llewyn's sister's narrow Queens two-story with the gray asphalt shingles and the Chef Boy-Ar-Dee Cheese Pizza in the cupboard was easier – pure Woodside, even though it's actually in Ridgewood. The folksingers' furniture is a jumble of secondhand couches, worn Danish modern, and such perennials as the wine-bottle lamp with the frayed shade in Al Cody's cramped walkup. And reinforcing "reality" throughout is Bruno Delbonnel's crucial decision to bathe everything in the cold gray cloud-cover light that dominates every New York winter.

Oscar Isaac in 'Inside Llewyn Davis.' (Photo: Alison Rosa)

Costume designer Mary Zophres had a more delicate problem: portraying the period clothing of a nascent bohemia that regarded the just-gone Fifties beats as passe and cornily flamboyant. In this there was considerable cultural convergence. In some angry part of himself Llewyn may consider his academic benefactors the Gorfeins square, but they share with him and his fellow folksingers the belief that clothing should be comfortable rather than modish. Especially given his flimsy black crepe-sole shoes, which Zophres says she chose because they were so "pathetic and weather-inappropriate," Llewyn's main protection against the sunless chill is a medium-wale circa-1955 corduroy sports jacket Zophres constructed from several finalists after auditioning a rack or two. Yet stylistically this jacket would suit Mitch Gorfein fine – putting the professor closer to Llewyn than Legacy Records owner Mel Novikoff, whose gray tweed overcoat the younger man turns down. Llewyn's sister's Doris Day flip defines her as straight, but Jean Berkey's feather bangs don't pigeonhole her as hip; she wears her hair straight and long like Lillian Gorfein and might well go for similar cat's-eye frames if she needed glasses. Only Llewyn's curly hair is long enough to be called scruffy and that's probably because he can't afford a barber. There are plenty of beards, but even Llewyn's isn't bushy, and they tend toward neat goatees except on the pear-shaped early-music keyboard player Llewyn meets at the Gorfeins. Neckties abound.

It's amid all this verisimilitude, a rendition of quasi-bohemian Manhattan that certainly brings back memories for me, that Llewyn Davis, Jim and Jean Berkey, earnest soldier Troy Nelson, and – crucially, as it turns out – a few odd performers at the Gaslight try to make their folk songs real. Llewyn's the one with the mania, but few 21st-century moviegoers will understand why he considers his approach so much purer than the others'. True, there are the striped shirts both Jim and Troy affect – the sartorial signature of the Kingston Trio, the folk-style hitmakers who released their seventh Number One or  Two album in February 1961, and who must be on Chicago impresario Bud Grossman's mind when he extols Troy Nelson's ability to connect with people and dismisses the dirge Llewyn cherrypicks for his tryout. And we know that when Jean warns him to plan for his future, Llewyn equates that inescapability with flying cars and Tang and brands Jean "careerist," "square," and "suburban" for thinking about it. We also know Llewyn's definition of a folk song because it's damn near the first words out of his mouth that don't have a tune attached: "If it's never been new and it never gets old, it's a folk song."

Oscar Isaac in 'Inside Llewyn Davis.' (Photo: Alison Rosa)

Fair enough as poetry, although even "Greensleeves" was once new. But Llewyn is nonetheless in it for money even if he's not making any. When his sister saves a childhood recording he instructs her to trash it: "When you're in the entertainment business you're not supposed to let your practice shit out – it ruins the mystique." And when the Gorfeins ask him to sing for their dinner guests he turns on them: "I do this for a living." There's an anger in Llewyn that appears to predate his partner Mike's suicide. Conflict with his father, perhaps? We don't know – lots of men are angry. But maybe, the film suggests, that's what drives his passion for his incoherent notion of authenticity. After all, the worst tirade of his bad week by far is the sexist bile he spews at the most certifiably "authentic" musician we get to see: autoharp-strumming Elizabeth Hobby from Arkansas, played by Missouri-born modern folk performer Nancy Blake. "I hate fuckin' folk music," he shouts.

The film's one transgression against verite convention is its circular structure: Llewyn sings the same song the same way with the same commentary at the beginning and the end, and suffers the same two blows and a kick from Mr. Hobby in the alley afterwards. Eternal recurrence, we think at first – Groundhog Day, only not for laughs. But think some more and it seems likely that the whole week is a flashback from the first Gaslight sequence. After all, the circle isn't exact – this time Llewyn has learned not to let a cat named Ulysses out the Gorfeins' door. And this time we get just a glimpse of the act that follows him: a scruffy waif whose wittingly rough-hewn "Farewell" is about to uproot folkie notions of authenticity forever and bring the music into a bigger future than is dreamt of in the Kingston Trio's philosophy. In short, Bob Dylan.

And then Llewyn ambles into the alley and Mr. Hobby beats him down. What does Mr. Hobby think of the mythic Manhattan the Coen Brothers have re-created with such love, such care, such authenticity?

"Fuckin' cesspool."