The following is the fifth of five highlights from my nine years writing for the Muriels Awards, a consideration of the music woven through the Coen Brothers' Insisde Llewyn Davis, which won the Muriel Award in 2013 for Best Music (Original, Adapted or Compiled).
The movie is a bitter-pill character piece, hilarious and horrifying and incisive, often all at the same time -- a study in insular narcissism cast in a time when the meaning of the folk movement lay precisely in the sort of reaching inward (for truth in expression) and outward (to affect individual lives and, as a result, the machinery of social change) that Llewyn Davis no longer seems interested in. And Davis’ stifling narcissism, one of the Coens’ primary concerns here, dictates the meaning of the music as heard and seen in the movie. Despite the impeccable contributions of T-Bone Burnett as compiler and producer of the movie’s richly evocative folk music ambiance, we’re far from the bluegrass-infused world of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, where the very presence of the meaning of the music as a spiritual and interpersonal conduit was inescapable.
Those expecting an earnest documentary approach to the cultural climate informing Inside Llewyn Davis, one which precisely lays out the scene and the means by which we are to understand it from a historical perspective, will inevitably be put off by the Coens’ typically perverse challenge to understand a landmark moment in musical history from the point of view of a fly on the wall. We are, after all, inside Llewyn Davis, a place where music has lost its meaning as a social tool, as a means of reciprocal human connection, or as anything other than the nearly abstract expression of pure talent and the desire to be recognized. (In this regard, it ought to have resonated more fully than it apparently did in the age of American Idol and instant, disposable fame.)
In this way it is perfectly, uncomfortably fitting that, among all the beautifully evoked and performed music in the film, one of the highlights is “Please, Mr. President,” a jaunty, corny ballad so silly that you just know it’s going to be a hit. (Another clue: Llewyn eagerly signs on to play guitar and sing background on the recording for the instant gratification of a signing fee, forsaking the royalties he can’t imagine the tune will ever generate.) The tune, performed by Isaac and Justin Timberlake, with Adam Driver providing unforgettable basso backup (“Outer... space!”), is a perfect mixture of satire and whimsical sense memory, of a time just before Vietnam became a household word, when one could conceivably worry more (even in a lighthearted sense) over being tossed against one’s will into orbit with the likes of John Glenn and Gordon Cooper than being conscripted into harm’s way in Southeast Asia. (The song reminded me of a 45 I used to play as a toddler, “Sing a Song of John F. Kennedy.”)
But the greatest, most potent sting is left for last. Near the end, Davis performs another traditional song onstage, “Fare Thee Well,” in his clear, tender, accomplished, unrecognized voice, and then gets a beating in the alley behind the club which we’ve already seen administered once. (There’s some nifty directorial sleight of hand at play which I won’t reveal here.) And as he leans back in the alley, stunned, recovering from the punches brought down on him, we hear -- and so does Llewyn -- the sound emanating from the performer who took the stage after Llewyn departed, the final blow. It’s another “Farewell,” this one sung (and derived from a never-before-heard recording) by a fellow whom we never hear introduced but whom we know can only be a young Bob Dylan. The camera holds on Llewyn’s face as he registers Dylan’s completely original phrasing, the lyrics that reverberate with Davis’ self-mythology yet seem true to an experience beyond his understanding. (“Oh, the weather is against me/And the wind blows hard/And the rain she’s a-turnin’ into hail/I still might strike it lucky on a highway goin’ west/Though I’m travelin’ on a path beaten trail.”) This is a punch that’s something new. He’s been devastated not by fate or bad luck, but instead on his own terms.
It’s in this profoundly personal moment, a moment during which a talented young man is reduced to a mediocrity, to just another folk singer, that the Coens choose to introduce the modestly presented but culturally deafening change that has hovered like a deep, dark, inviting shadow for the length of the film. As befits the Coens' entire glancing approach to the significance of the folk music scene, this moment of seismic change registers for the audience, but Llewyn never hears it. The guy now onstage is just another schlub, providing background music for Llewyn’s latest round of pain and woes. As always, Llewyn remains outside the club, while inside the times they are a-changin’. Inside Llewyn Davis there may be the persistent echo of the road not traveled, the life stubbornly not lived, but never much in the way of reflection, of self-awareness, of why being a musician is so important. And now, as he passes into anonymity within that shadow, where the likes of Dave Van Ronk and countless others wait to commiserate, there is a new sound, one that will refuse to fade away, one that will define Davis and the folk music scene from which he emerged in a way that his own music never could.