For a film geek, picking a favorite Coen Brothers movie is difficult. Keep in mind that Joel and Ethan Coen are two of the most consistently stirring directors in cinema responsible for “No Country for Old Men,” “Fargo,” ‘The Big Lewboski,” “Barton Fink,” “A Serious Man” among others. When pressed to make a choice, I will go with my heart and decide on “Inside Llewyn Davis” (2013). It’s the one I’ve revisited the most and that upon watching again last night has given me the most comfort. Deceptively, it’s a simple story – we follow a struggling folk singer Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac – in his breakout role) during a week in 1961, New York City – relying on his friends to let him crash on their couches – as he attempts to get a career break – which includes driving to Chicago for an audition. The film is a fictional take on the early 1960s folk music scene in Greenwhich Village – and the character of Davis is a composite of Dave Van Ronk, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and other musicians. The great music producer T Bone Burnett curated a selection of exquisite folk songs from the time period that are sung by the cast which besides Isaac includes Carrie Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, and Adam Driver.
It articulates how a young – moderately talented man comes to terms with the fact that success will always elude him. It’s his search for self-worth in a cruel and arbitrary world that is not always too kind to artists and values money over artistry. And it also shows how we can be our own worst enemies – and are capable of self-sabotage. The movie is melancholic, funny and bittersweet for it deals both with ambition and its constant counterpart, failure. There’s an undercurrent of black comedy that runs through as we watch our main character sputter and pick himself back up again. All of these themes ring within me, and I know will speak to you – especially during this period of introspection and self-evaluation.
There’s also a crucial ingredient to the story that will help you understand the film’s profundity. At the beginning of the film, one of Llewyn’s friend’s cat escapes – and the beloved pet becomes a through line to the narrative – as Llewyn loses it – finds it – mistakes it with another and finds him again as the tale progresses. The cat is a symbol. I tell my students that symbols are open to interpretation – and they’re used by directors to help them navigate ideas that otherwise would be difficult to articulate. Early in the movie, we find out that Llewyn was part of a singing duo – and that his partner committed suicide. Their album was poignantly called “If I Had Wings.” The cat first exits the apartment when their record is playing. Later – in the surreal (is it a dream?) trip to Chicago a jazz musician called Roland Turner – played with gusto by John Goodman – questions him about the fact that Llewyn considers himself a solo artist. “Now?!” Turner gruffs. “You used to work with the cat? Every time you’d play a C major, he’d puke a hairball?” Towards the end of the movie, as Llewyn sees that the cat is safely returned to its home and that its name is Ulysses, he notices a movie theatre with Disney’s “The Incredible Journey” playing, and the Coen Brothers zoom in on the film’s description – “a fantastic true life drama” and then they focus on the main protagonist – a cat. So “Inside Llewyn Davis” is a Homeric journey of self-discovery – an inward journey.
The cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel captures visually the mood and feel of a wintry New York – and the interior journey of Llewyn. Notice how everything is very stylized – in particular the colors. Most of the background is cool colors (blues) – and there’s the prominence of an isolated warm color – most of the time – yellow – which matches the cat’s coat. Before or after you watch the film – check out the cover of the album “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” and observe the similarities. There are long perspectives in the composition – and comical narrow hallways.
Llewyn Davis: “In my experience, the world’s divided into two kinds of people. Those who divide the world into two kinds of people…”
Jean: “And losers?”
Available to stream on Amazon Prime and to rent on YouTube, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, DIRECTV, Amazon, FandangoNOW and AMC Theatres on Demand.
Written by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
Directed by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund, F. Murray Abraham and Justin Timberlake
The Making of “Inside Llewyn Davis”
“This film was born of the brothers’ love of 1950s and ’60s folk music — especially in the beatnik scene in New York’s Greenwich Village, just before the arrival of Bob Dylan, the electric guitar and the tumult of the late 1960s. The Coens were particularly taken by the work of musician Dave Van Ronk, whose autobiographical book, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, was a touchstone…It became the Coens’ obsession to write a movie that would explain that unprovoked attack while bringing to life an authentic style of American music about to come to an end. “There’s not much of a plot and that’s a challenge,” says Joel Coen… “We’ve done things that are very heavily plotted, and in the middle of this we were going, ‘Well, what is this? It’s really a very discrete period of time, a slice into which nothing much happens, so how do you drive the narrative?'”
The Coens turned to mega-producer Scott Rudin for a third time, after “No Country for Old Men” and “True Grit.” And the $17 million budget was low enough to allow them their customary complete creative control. “They tailor a movie to maintain their freedom,” says Rudin, who brought aboard French pay TV giant Canal Plus, which put up the entire cost and, before they fielded any offers for the domestic rights, sold enough international territories to cover the budget. Rudin says CBS Films, led by Terry Press and Wolfgang Hammer, aggressively tracked domestic rights, and just before Cannes — where “Inside Llewyn Davis” won the Grand Prix, the second-highest honor — paid a reported $4 million. “She (Press) loved the music,” says Rudin. “She loved the movie, wanted it, chased it hard.” With music playing such an integral role, the Coens once again collaborated with composer T Bone Burnett (“O Brother, Where Art Thou?”). “This is a story about a musician,” says Burnett. “The place where he lives is in his music. So when you’re introducing the character, the way to introduce him is in the song, and not just a snippet of a song, but the full song.”
Burnett worked with the Coens as they searched for their lead, who had to act and sing well enough to be accepted as a professional but who audiences would believe might never succeed in the music biz. More than 100 actors auditioned. “This is the kind of part where if we had not found Oscar,” says Joel of the Juilliard-trained Isaac, “the movie may have been impossible to make.” Joel Coen felt the Guatemala-born and South Florida-raised Isaac — who’d been in “The Bourne Legacy” (2012) and “Drive” (2011) — brought an important dimension to a character who isn’t very sympathetic: “In his performance Oscar refused to court sympathy. He wasn’t trying to warm-and-fuzzy the character up, to get the audience to like him. But there is something about Oscar which is naturally sympathetic.” (hollywoodreporter.com)
The Man Behind the Music of “Inside Llewyn Davis”
In an interview with “The Independent,” Executive Music Producer, T Bone Burnett, discusses his work and influence on “Inside Llewyn Davis.” Burnett’s soundtrack is largely adapted from trad folk tunes, such as the mournful “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” that opens the film. Burnett doesn’t expect it to generate the same reaction as the O Brother … soundtrack – “I think the [folk] revival is already happening. Mumford and Sons, the Alabama Shakes, The Lumineers and so on,” he explains. That said, with songs as catchy as “Please Mr Kennedy”, and a musical line-up including Justin Timberlake, who plays one half of a husband-and-wife duo alongside Carey Mulligan, and folk-pop superstar (and Mulligan’s real-life husband) Marcus Mumford, anything is possible. Burnett couldn’t be more sincere when he calls this project “the best job in the world”. Part of Burnett’s task was to train up Oscar Isaac, who plays Llewyn; Isaac, 34, played in a ska-punk band called The Blinking Underdogs in the late Nineties, but this required him to perfect a stripped-down, intimate performance style, playing guitar and singing live to camera. Isaac took to it like a natural, Burnett says. “Each song, he would get it and internalise it and the song would grow into this beautiful performance. It was amazing watching him reveal these songs.”
“Inside Llewyn Davis” is “the story of my life”…“I do mean it, but not in any simple way,” he says. “Llewyn doesn’t have a career. Hanging around Washington Square Park was never going to be a career. But he would play in places and he would get by.” So Burnett spent years similarly scratching a living? “All my life!” he chuckles. “I have a bedroom now, but I slept on couches!” Born in Missouri as Joseph Henry Burnett – the nickname came when he was five – he grew up in Fort Worth, Texas, amid a burgeoning teen music scene. He started playing guitar when he was 10 and, by 16, he and some friends had a band, even taking out a bank loan to buy a local studio that was for sale. His bandmates’ idea was to record, get songs on the radio and get gigs, but Burnett was dreaming a different dream. “I wanted to be Burt Bacharach. I didn’t want to be a public performer. I wanted to write songs for movies, marry Angie Dickinson and have race horses! That kind of thing was a way out of Fort Worth, a way into the bigger world.” Nevertheless his breakthrough did come as a performer, when, after moving to LA, he was asked by Bob Dylan to play guitar on his 1975-76 Rolling Thunder Revue tour. “It was a masterclass in showbusiness,” says Burnett. “He taught me about pacing shows. Every show needs a script, needs to tell a story, needs to have some kind of identity and cohesion. I really learned everything I needed to know to sustain me for the next 40 years in music.”
Dylan features prominently in Burnett’s work with the Coens, from the use of “The Man In Me” in The Big Lebowski’s title sequence to the appearance of rare cut “Farewell” in “Inside Llewyn Davis.” Indeed, Dylan haunts the latter as the revolutionary who finally took folk standards to the masses where many faithful but workmanlike interpreters in the mould of Llewyn had failed. “He had no problem with opening the window and letting this music out, re-inventing it for the modern world,” says Burnett. “Just as Louis Armstrong had, just as Hank Williams had, just as Elvis Presley had.” After his Dylan gig, Burnett formed the Alpha Band with other members of the backing band from the tour. But the group disbanded in 1979, after three albums, and, though he pursued a solo career for a while, it’s clear he has always been more comfortable producing. He’s recently worked on Nashville, the country music soap created by his wife, screenwriter Callie Khouri, and has just finished scoring HBO crime drama “True Detective,” starring Matthew McConaughey. “I’m in an age and time in my life when I don’t need to go out to the audience and get attention. In fact, I’d rather not have attention; I’d rather work in solitude and private.” He flashes a smile. “But I’m really happy.” (independent.co.uk)
Oscar Isaac on the Coen Brothers
“The Coens don’t do a lot of takes, so it didn’t actually feel too grueling. We’d always end on time. It was actually the most efficient set I’d ever been on as well. There was very little room for chaos. The way to tell the difference between a very experienced director versus an inexperienced one is when shit goes wrong, because it always does. You just don’t really notice it with someone who knows what’s going on, because they’ll either roll with it or adjust very quickly without too much screaming and yelling about it. It was just incredibly relaxed, the whole environment. People were very happy to be there. Also, I remember Tony Gilroy doing this a lot: They’re really good at including everybody. In conversations, or just by the simple fact that they print out the storyboards every morning for everyone to see as well. There’re a lot of directors that will have secret conversations with the DP in the corner, leaving everyone feeling as if they’re not on the same page. That happens when there’s insecurity.”
“It’s hard to get movies made the way that people want to make them, because fear drives so much of it. And the reason that fear drives so much of it is because money drives so much of it. And money and fear are completely intertwined. Working on a film with the Coens, though, there’s just zero fear. There’s no reason for them…they haven’t been burned. Sure, they’ve had slightly more difficult situations than others, but they’ve always done things the way they wanted to do it, and they’ve had the good fortune of being able to nourish their genius. I don’t use that term lightly, as I think they’re geniuses, and lucky geniuses.” (slantmagazine.com)
About the Co-Writer and Directors, Joel and Ethan Coen
“The Coen brothers, American filmmakers known for their stylish films that combine elements of comedy and drama and often centre on eccentric characters and convoluted plots. Though both brothers contributed to all phases of the filmmaking process, Joel Coen (b. November 29, 1955, St. Louis Park, Minnesota, U.S.) was usually solely credited as the director, and Ethan Coen (b. September 21, 1958, St. Louis Park) was nominally the producer, with the brothers sharing screenwriting credit and using the pseudonym “Roderick Jaynes” for editing. The children of university professors, the brothers showed an early interest in filmmaking, shooting home movies of their friends with a Super-8 camera. Joel refined his craft at the New York University Film School and after graduation found work as an assistant editor on low-budget horror films. Ethan, meanwhile, studied philosophy at Princeton University. After graduation he joined his brother in New York City, and together they began writing scripts for independent producers.
The brothers garnered much attention in 1984 with “Blood Simple,” a sleek thriller that they cowrote and financed through private investors. The critical success of the film enabled the brothers to make a deal with an independent production company that granted them complete creative control. The films that followed highlighted the Coens’ versatility and firmly established their reputation as idiosyncratic talents. “Raising Arizona” (1987) was an irreverent comedy about babies, Harley Davidsons, and high explosives, and the period drama Miller’s Crossing (1990) focused on gangsters. “Barton Fink,” about an edgy, neurotic would-be writer, claimed the best picture, best director, and best actor awards at the 1991 Cannes film festival, the first such sweep in the event’s history. The Coens turned to Hollywood to produce their fifth feature, “The Hudsucker Proxy” (1994), a fairy tale in which a small-town hayseed becomes the head of a big-time corporation. Written a decade earlier by the brothers and director Sam Raimi, the project boasted an all-star cast that included Paul Newman and Tim Robbins, but it was a critical and financial flop. “Fargo” (1996) marked a return to both small-budget, independent filmmaking and the brothers’ Minnesota roots. The film—a dark comedy that revolves around a botched kidnapping and the small-town police officer (played by Frances McDormand, Joel’s wife) who investigates it—was nominated for seven Academy Awards and won two (including a best original screenplay Oscar for the Coens).
The brothers’ next film, “The Big Lebowski” (1998), was a box-office disappointment but gained a massive cult following when it was released on video and DVD. “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (2000), a reimagining of Homer’s Odyssey set in the Depression-era American South and starring George Clooney, earned the brothers their second Oscar nomination for screenwriting. “The Man Who Wasn’t There” (2001) won rave reviews for its pitch-perfect film noir style. After a pair of broad comedies that failed to excite either the public or critics, the brothers earned accolades in 2007 with their atmospheric meditation on good and evil, “No Country for Old Men,” an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name. The film won four Academy Awards, and the Coens received Oscars for best picture, best director, and best adapted screenplay. They followed that with “Burn After Reading” (2008), a CIA comedy starring Clooney, McDormand, and Brad Pitt, and the dark comedy “A Serious Man” (2009), which centred on a Jewish family in the late 1960s and earned Academy Award nominations for best picture and best original screenplay. In 2010 the brothers filmed an adaptation of Charles Portis’s western novel “True Grit,” with Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn, a role originated on-screen by John Wayne in 1969. The film captured 10 Oscar nominations, including best picture, best director, and best adapted screenplay. “Inside Llewyn Davis” (2013) was an impressionistic paean to the 1960s folk music scene in New York City that centred on the travails of a talented but hapless musician. The Coen brothers sent up the mannerisms and excess of the golden age of Hollywood in the caper “Hail, Caesar!” (2016), and they later told six short tales of the Old West in “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” (2018).
The brothers co-wrote the screenplay for “Unbroken” (2014), based on the true story of an Olympic runner and U.S. Air Force officer who became a Japanese prisoner of war after a plane crash; the film was directed by Angelina Jolie. They also co-wrote (with Matt Charman) the screenplay for Steven Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies” (2015), based on the story of American lawyer James Donovan’s defense of Soviet spy Rudolf Abel and subsequent arbitration of Abel’s exchange for American pilot Francis Gary Powers, who was captured by the Soviets. A script the brothers wrote in the 1980s about an idyllic 1950s suburb where an episode of insurance fraud goes awry was adapted by Clooney for the dark comedy “Suburbicon” (2017). (britannica.com)