Inside Llewyn Davis: A near-perfect mix of music and message

Photo By Alison Rosa

Any time Oscar-winning St. Louis Park filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen announce that they are releasing a new film, there is going to be plenty of local interest. When they decided to set their new one, Inside Llewyn Davis, in the early-'60s folk music scene of New York City that would eventually embrace a young Bob Dylan, Minnesota moviegoers became even more intrigued.

Last night, I was fortunate to attend an early screening of the Coen brothers' new film -- which opens in an exclusive early engagement at the Uptown Theatre this Thursday night -- and came away impressed with the focus and care that was shown to folk music throughout the film, as well as the knowing attention given to the insecure struggle of the creative life.

From the onset, Inside Llewyn Davis is a film that holds the uncertain power of music at its restless core, as the movie opens in 1961 at the famed Gaslight Cafe with a hushed live performance by Davis (whose character is based on Dave Van Ronk, with the movie loosely based on his posthumous memoir, The Mayor of MacDougal Street).

Music has always played an intimate and important role in film, but I have yet to come across a movie that pays such close, careful attention to live performances and how the right songs can silence and stir a room.

Most of the music played in the film is aired from the start of the track to its finish, with the full impact of the songs themselves given plenty of time to sink in with the audience and linger within the storyline of the movie itself.

At times, portions of the film take on the look of a music video, just one done by the expert artistic eye of the Coens. They stylishly capture various performances from on stage, in the studio, and around the dinner table with a studied, affectionate air that reinforces just how much music means to them as both fans and filmmakers. They also starkly express the frustration and despair involved in creative rejection, and the desolate, disconsolate space we retreat to when confronted with being dismissed.

Oscar Isaac was a revelation in the role of Llewyn, injecting the character with an unguarded vulnerability that he tries to mask with coarse language and an arrogant veneer. But he is a fragile, underappreciated (and endlessly broke) artist at his heart, and you can't help but root for him on his travels, even though anyone who is familiar with Van Ronk's criminally overlooked status in music history knows how this story is going to play out. That the film concentrates on the events of only one lively week for Davis only reinforces the long, frustrating creative road that he traveled throughout his lifetime.

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