By Michaela Dwyer
It plays over and over in my head, like a nugget of a lyric of a broken record: “it’s a little careerist, and a little square, and a little sad.” A heavy New Yawk accent possessed by a fictional character named Llewyn Davis. “Saa-hd.” Llewyn is admonishing his sometimes-friend and sometimes-lover Jean, who blinks at him across a café table through her stringy brown bangs and steadily increasing rancor. She, like Llewyn, is a folk musician. She, unlike Llewyn, is in love and wants a family. These visions, for Llewyn, are incommensurate.
Jean and Llewyn argue. Photocourtesy of blackfilm.com.
Inside Llewyn Davis is a folk tale about a folk singer. This singer ambles around NYC in the early 1960s pre-Dylan folk heyday, after Appalachian ballads and African diasporic melodies and European shanties and the aura of Woody Guthrie had mixed and migrated up north into the ears and instruments of largely young white hipsters decamped to Greenwich Village. Everyone was trying to make it, to be the next big musical thing. In the Coen Brothers’s new film we spend almost two hours witnessing Llewyn Davis fumble about as a fictional slice of that everyone. He carries around a guitar. He argues with his record label. He argues with his sister, who he claims doesn’t understand the “music business.” And, of course, he argues with Jean. Most of all, he struggles to make it as a solo act after his singing partner commits suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge. It’s not hard to place him within the general cultural narrative we’ve developed for musicians, artists, athletes, politicians, or “famous people” generally. They struggle, and then they make it! How fabulous. How tragic their tragedy, and how sweet their success.
Fictional folk musicians at the Gaslight Cafe. Photo courtesy of moviepilot.com.
But then the movie begins and ends (sorta) the same way: With Llewyn onstage, solo, singing the macabre tune “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” at the same old café where he’ll win the cash bucket one night and heckle frumpy performers the next. He never—or at least never in the space of the film—“makes it” on his own terms. “Hang Me” is an ambivalent plea to some higher power, to someone not-Llewyn, watching him from another space and place as Llewyn lives out his follies and failures in a cruel Sisyphean cycle. And it’s certainly more than a little “saa-hd.”
In a similar way I keep turning this movie over in my mind. I’ve seen it twice and puzzled over it with friends and family. Why do I think it’s important? Why do I think it matters beyond the woes of a romanticized cultural era and one of its [fictional] tragic heroes? All reviews of the film seem united in their distaste for Llewyn, whose understanding of his life and his artistry are one and the same and inescapably narrow. He leaves no space for commitment to people, to love, to a fraction of bare-bones sympathy for anyone but himself.
My mom asked me the other day if I liked Llewyn more or less by the end of the film. I said I wasn’t sure. I asked her if Llewyn more bears the brunt of bad circumstances or creates them himself. She said she wasn’t sure. Llewyn’s failure to work things out and my repeated failure to make sense of his journey feel like the apotheosis of the film itself: the couple-days’ life-cycle of a hapless protagonist unwilling to compromise in a world governed by compromise.
At the Gaslight, real folk musicians, including Dave Van Ronk, who partially inspired the character of Llewyn. Photo courtesy of theaustralian.com.
A few weeks ago I went to Raleigh for a show featuring two local bands. It was cheap ($7) and brought in a jovial crowd. As is typical of concerts in the Triangle music community, the performers seemed genuinely appreciative of the support. In the crowd and on the stage, these people play with each other, hang out together, share disciplines and ideas and recording studios. One of my former professors once compared the Triangle’s art scene to New York’s: comparable in talent, but here people “do things without so much of the angst.” They (we) create the kind of atmosphere that ennobles performers, like one that night, to, as he said, “do something really weird,” which turned out to be a simple ditty—punctuated by some accomplished guitar licks—that he wrote as a wake-up song for his two-year-old son. He smiled the entire time, and so did I, and so did most people in the crowd. When I go to shows I like feeling the connections between people. I like feeling like I like the performer, like he or she is a “good person.” I appreciate the art even more.
I crossed the room for a drink and almost ran into a well-known indie folk musician, gone incognito in a black hoodie. I tried, and failed, to capture him via Snapchat. I retreated, sat back down, and re-oriented. And the music was still going on, and it was still great, and the people were still smiling.
Late in the film, Llewyn plays a big-name record producer and club owner a song in an empty venue. The producer’s immediate response: “I don’t see the money here.” He sees the money in other solo acts, though: “He’s a good boy,” he says about an on-the-rise clean-cut soldier-singer who Llewyn despises. “He connects with people.”
To Llewyn, people who are not all-or-nothing striving artists merely “exist.” He believes their “enough” is too simple, too easily satisfied, settled, compromised. And yet, ironically, it’s these stories he peddles in his quest to succeed, tales plucked from the everyday, passed down in oral tradition from parent to child and on and back again. These stories tell of the way people have chosen to live their lives in the face of struggle, in tandem with love, in the interests of those who are not them. In hard times and less-hard times. You could also call this folklore, folktale, folk music.
If I could give Llewyn a loving, back-album-cover tribute, it would go something like this: We all exist. Life exists outside of, but not apart from, art, sport, event. This is all an ecosystem of give and receive, of micro-compromises and reconstructions of what, for us, is “enough.” And, dear Llewyn, you’re having a hard time, and for specific reasons. You’re fictional, so I’m not sure what, if anything, happens to you in the long run. But I’ll write about you here and talk about you there, and we’ll play this record until it wears out.