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Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Outside Llewyn Davis

                                             “There was music in the cafes at night,
                                                And revolution in the air.”
                                                                   B. Dylan   
Critics are raving about “Inside Llewyn Davis,” the new film by Joel and Ethan Coen evoking the Greenwich Village folk scene of 1961.   But the Coen brothers, and most of the critics, weren’t there at the time.  As one who was there, I’d say the Coens got it wrong.

Not so much in the details. McDougal Street looks a lot like it did in 1961, with the coffee houses and the grimy Kettle of Fish tavern.  The Gaslight Café, which in the film is a mash-up of the Gaslight and Gerde’s Folk City, looks like neither, but enough like a typical folk club of the period.  Oscar Isaac, as the title character, looks and sounds a little like Dave Van Ronk, on whom he is “loosely based,” though both his beard and his voice are neater, his guitar playing is nowhere as complex and sophisticated, and his commitment to folk music is suspect.  The surrounding cast of characters – the sleazy bar owner, the dysfunctional folk-record producer, the mumbling beat poet, the chick who sleeps with too many guys, the kindly abortion doctor, the phony folkies who hope to cash in on their music, the cynical talent manager who knows how to make that happen --  are all based on real types of the period. 

What’s missing is the spirit – the electric atmosphere that made the Village a magnet for every kind of artistic rebel.   Llewyn is a loser, a self-absorbed artist, easily discouraged by failure.  Dave Van Ronk was a musical genius and an indomitable force on the folk music scene.  He never made money from it, but he never quit, and he never quit because he loved the material so completely that he made it his own, his own identity.  To watch and hear him perform for small change in the Gaslight Café was like a religious experience – he hovered over his guitar, savoring notes as he bent them into blues, croaking out the old complaints in his untrained, roughed-up but gentle high tenor voice.   Here was a man in love with an America that had practically disappeared in the militarized, commercialized and sanitized world of the forties and fifties.  In love, and able to express it in songs he’d copied and adapted from obscure field recordings.   And not about to sell it out, or give it up, no matter what.