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What’s Real in ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’

Drawing the facts out from the fiction in the Coen Brothers’ new film

Courtesy Prestige/Folklore

Inside Llewyn Davis is based only loosely on the life of folk icon Dave Van Ronk and the 1961 pre-folk boom Greenwhich Village scene he describes in his posthumous memoir, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, but there are many glimmers of truth to be found if you know where to look. 

To start, the cover art for Llewyn Davis' solo album, Inside Llewyn Davis, which is briefly glimpsed in the film, draws directly from Van Ronk's 1963 release, Inside Dave Van Ronk. Both covers show the eponymous artist leaning against an open door, wearing a tweed jacket, a cigarette in hand. One difference? The cat lingering by Van Ronk's feet is missing from Llewyn's. Must have gotten away. —Zara Golden

Alison Rosa

Llewyn’s Trademark Tune

The movie begins and ends at Greenwich Village's The Gaslight club, with Davis performing "Hang Me, Oh Hang Me," an old favorite of Van Ronk's. The latter sang the traditional folk song on his 1962 effort Dave Van Ronk, Folksinger, with a bit more grit than Davis' portrayer, the Julliard-trained Oscar Isaac does, but as Davis says in the film, "If it's never new and it never gets old, it's a folk song."

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images; Alison Rosa

Urban Cowboys

In the film, Adam Driver plays Al Cody (seen at right), an eccentric, cowboy hat-wearing folkie whose real name turns out to be Arthur Milgram and who hails not from the range, but from New Jersey. The character is a close match to famed troubadour Ramblin' Jack Elliott (seen at left), born Elliot Charles Adnopoz in Brooklyn. 

Jan Persson/Redferns

The Management

The Coens did not stray far from reality when creating the film's Bud Grossman, played by F. Murray Abraham, who is drawn largely from Albert Grossman (seen at left), a co-founder of Chicago's Gate of Horn club and one of the most influential managers in folk music. He had a good ear – Odetta, Joan Baez, Janis Joplin, and Bob Dylan were all clients – and an even better sense for business. And so as real-life Grossman might have done, Bud shakes Davis off by telling him, “I don't see a lot of money here.” 

Courtesy CBS Films

The Gate of Horn Club

Desperate for a break, Davis makes a pilgrimage to Chicago to try out for Bud Grossman at the latter's Gate of Horn club. The trip is based on one Van Ronk took to the real-life club of the same name, owned by Albert Grossman, and which was a frequent stop on the folk circuit. As Van Ronk recollects it in Mayor of MacDougal Street, the journey was unsuccesful, and on the way back his merchant seamen's papers – AKA his backup plan – were pick-pocketed. Likewise, lost seamen's papers eventually become a problem for Davis.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Power Trios

After hearing his impromptu audition at the Gate of Horn, manager Bud Grossman asks Llewyn Davis if he might consider a gig as the third member in the folk-pop trio he was setting up. Similarly, Al Grossman likewise considered Dave Van Ronk for a spot in the folk-pop act he was assembling. In a different world, Peter, Paul & Mary would've been Peter, Dave and Mary! In another nod to PP&M, the film shows the duo of Jim and Jean inviting a third, Troy Nelson, to join them for “500 Miles,” a traditional song Peter, Paul & Mary often played.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Dapper Dandies

Max Casella plays Gaslight club owner Pappi Corsicato, and his slicked back hair and thin mustache make him a dead ringer for folk singer Cisco Houston, seen here. In another likely non-coincidence, Pappi Corsicato is also the name of an Italian director

Bob Koller/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

The Gaslight Cafe

Llewyn Davis is a regular at one of Van Ronk's old MacDougal Street haunts: the Gaslight. A coal-cellar turned subterranean counter-culture hub, The Gaslight hosted performances by the likes of Richie Havens, Tom Paxton, Phil Ochs, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Bob Dylan, and, of course, Van Ronk. Recreated in a Brooklyn warehouse, the film's Gaslight is accurately dark and dingy.

Val Wilmer/Redferns/Getty Images

The Royalty Collection Blues

During a down moment, Llewyn Davis asks his label owner, Mel Novikoff (Jerry Grayson), to cough up an overdue royalty payment. Instead, Novikoff offers the coat off his back. This echoes an actual exchange between Van Ronk and Folkways Records owner Moe Asch (pictured at left). According to Van Ronk, “Moe Asch could be an exasperating man, and he would never pay you ten cents if he could get away with five.”

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The Clancy Brothers

One night at the Gaslight, Llewyn Davis catches a performance by an Aran sweater-clad Irish folk quartet, who were no doubt modeled after the Clancy Brothers, a traditional singing group active in the Greenwich Village folk scene during the time period captured by the film. As the story goes, upon hearing a rumor that it was going to be a cold winter in New York, the Clancys' mother mailed her sons the thick sweaters that became their trademark. 

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Hep Daddies

During Inside Llewyn Davis, our hero takes a trip with Roland Turner, an unfortunately gassy jazzbo played by John Goodman. With his natty suit, goatee, and crutches the character is awfully reminiscent of early rock songwriter and all-around hepcat Doc Pomus (at left), who had a similar sense of style and was also reliant on crutches as a result of a childhood bout with polio.

Sigmund Goode/Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images)

Bob Dylan’s Shadow

As Davis leaves the Gaslight after his ultimate performance, he turns back to catch a glimpse of a raggedy singer with a shaggy mess of hair, thin, raspy voice, and harmonica holder around his neck performing the traditional, "Farewell." Davis is unfamiliar with the performer, but the silhouette is unmistakably Dylanesque. By 1962, Dylan was a regular at the Gaslight. Van Ronk even helped arrange for some of Dylan's Gaslight sets to be recorded for a widely circulated bootleg collection that would eventually see official release in 2005 as Live at The Gaslight 1962

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