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Movies & TV

24th Jan 2024

One of the best music movies of the 21st century turns 10 years old

Stephen Porzio

It’s also one of the saddest.

There is an argument to be made for Joel and Ethan Coen – also known as the Coen Brothers – being among the most consistent directing forces since Stanley Kubrick.

Since their debut all the way back in 1984 with the dark crime thriller Blood Simple, the pair have arguably never made a bad movie. In fact, even their most tepidly received film, their 2004 remake of black comedy The Ladykillers, has its pleasures.

And perhaps in response to this mixed reaction from critics to The Ladykillers, following its release, the Coen Brothers entered perhaps their greatest period of success – with their Oscar Best Picture winner No Country for Old Men in 2007, which was then followed by the string of commercial and critical hits Burn After Reading, A Serious Man and True Grit.

Fresh off of this hot streak, the filmmaking duo decided with their next project to return to a topic that featured earlier in one of their most beloved comedies O Brother, Where Art Thou? – folk music.

The soundtrack to that George Clooney-starring movie wound up becoming a best-selling record, which even went so far as to win a Grammy for Best Album.

One imagines a combination of all the above adoration helped get the Coen’s True Grit follow-up, the music drama Inside Llewyn Davis, made.

Inside Llewyn Davis is one of the best music movies of the 21st century

Almost a minor-key flip-side to O Brother, Where Art Thou? – there are some similarities between it and Inside Llewyn Davis, with their emphasis on folk music and their stories about a character embarking on a strange odyssey.

However, in Inside Llewyn Davis, gone is the upbeat tone, bright cinematography and elements of magical realism of O Brother in place of a much sadder, much more authentic-feeling film.

Set mostly in 1961 Greenwich Village in New York, the drama follows fictional aspiring folk singer Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac, in his breakthrough role) over a particularly bad wintry week for him.

Some of this is due to factors out of his control. Llewyn is struggling to make it as a solo artist while mourning the death of his former musical partner Mike Timlin (an absent figure throughout the film but whose singing voice is provided by Marcus Mumford of Mumford and Sons).

inside llewyn davis

Oscar Isaac’s breakthrough role was in Inside Llewyn Davis

Following the financial failure of his first solo record – the titular Inside Llewyn Davis – the singer is reduced to crashing on the sofas and floors of various contemporaries as he scrambles around for the opportunity that could be his big break.

As for these contemporaries, they include married folk duo Jean and Jim Berkley (Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake) and the cowboy hat wearing Al Cody (Adam Driver, someone who would later help lead a Star Wars trilogy with Isaac).

However, Llewyn is also responsible for some of his own problems. Bitter over his lack of progress in the music industry, he is dismissive of those he deems less talented than him and jealous of those enjoying more success.

When asked if he likes the Irish folk singers (modelled on The Clancy Brothers) who he sees perform ‘The Auld Triangle’ in real-life venue The Gaslight, Llewyn dryly responds: “I like the sweaters,” before later drunkenly shouting at them: “The show’s bullshit. Four Micks…”

This anger and recklessness also leads him to abuse the kindness offered to him, something most evident by him sleeping with Jim’s wife Jean and her subsequently becoming pregnant and needing an abortion – something Llewyn cannot afford.

What has often set the Coen Brothers apart is their blend of literary-like characters, detail and dialogue with black comedy and Inside Llewyn Davis is no exception.

The movie is filled with hilarious scenes – Llewyn being forced to sing on the space travel-themed novelty song ‘Please Mr. Kennedy’ which he obviously hates, to him hitching a ride to Chicago to meet with a record producer (F. Murray Abraham).

In the case of the latter, he is forced to share a car with a rude, heroin-using New Orleans jazz musician (John Goodman) who it is suggested maybe puts a curse on Llewyn.

Even before this point, however, Llewyn’s luck was already pretty bad, with Jean telling him at one point: “Everything you touch turns to shit, you’re like King Midas’s idiot brother.”

That being said, the movie is also hugely affecting as a melancholic portrait of the purgatorial existence of a musician who, while obviously talented, seems increasingly destined to be on the cusp of success without ever quite getting there.

Without spoiling, even the structure of the film reinforces this. By the time the credits roll, the viewer comes to the realisation that while the movie may seem like a week from hell for Llewyn, he has probably had many weeks like this before.

As the lead character himself tells Jean at his most vulnerable and downtrodden: “I’m tired. I thought I just needed a night’s sleep but it’s more than that.”

inside llewyn davis

Carey Mulligan in Inside Llewyn Davis, which is a must-watch for music lovers

What makes Inside Llewyn Davis particularly a must-watch for music lovers is its tactile and textured recreation of the Greenwich Village folk scene of the time.

Thanks to the film’s painterly scenery and muted colours, viewers can practically feel the winter cold and the need to escape by it by visiting The Gaslight and hearing the most gorgeous music.

This is along with meeting a fascinating array of characters there – from beat poets (Garrett Hedlund) to lecherous venue owners (Max Casella) to maybe even a young future megastar like Bob Dylan (played briefly but memorably by Ben Pike).

Taking all this into account, as well as the wonderful performances by the entire ensemble cast, Inside Llewyn Davis all and all is another masterpiece of the Coen Brothers.

Sadly though, the directing pair have since split up, with Ethan Coen’s solo movie Drive-Away Dolls set to get its Irish premiere next month at the Dublin International Film Festival.

It will be interesting to see how the new comedy compares to his output with his brother, nearly all of which remains a supremely high benchmark to reach in terms of quality.

Inside Llewyn Davis is proof of this ten years on from its Irish release.

Inside Llewyn Davis is available to rent on Apple TV, Curzon, Google Play, Rakuten TV and the Sky Store.

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