Stuck Inside of Greenwich Village With the Coen Brothers Blues Again

'Inside Llewyn Davis' Conjures Up Early 1960s Folk Scene

Two Hep Cats: Oscar Isaac plays the title character in the Coen Brothers’ folk music pastiche, ‘Inside Llewyn Davis.’
CBS Films
Two Hep Cats: Oscar Isaac plays the title character in the Coen Brothers’ folk music pastiche, ‘Inside Llewyn Davis.’

By Ezra Glinter

Published December 05, 2013, issue of December 13, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

Success always seems inevitable in retrospect. Once you’ve arrived, it must have been destined all along. But failure — especially dream-crushing, life-destroying failure — is plagued by what-ifs and what-might-have-beens. Was it just bad luck, or did you really not have what it takes?

Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), the tortured protagonist of Joel and Ethan Coen’s latest movie, “Inside Llewyn Davis,” is a failure. Homeless, nearly friendless, and with a folk-singing career that flopped before it took off, he’s as down and out as he could be. Things have gotten so bad that he would rejoin the Merchant Marine, if his sister hadn’t thrown his seaman’s papers in the trash. But Llewyn’s life isn’t completely over, even if he feels like it might be.

Set in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village during one week in the winter of 1961, “Inside Llewyn Davis” hinges on a crucial dramatic irony. Within months, folk music will explode into a major commercial art form. Joan Baez will be on the cover of Time magazine, and tourists will flock to the hootenannies in Washington Square Park. Bob Dylan hasn’t shown up yet, but he’s about to, any minute. Llewyn Davis’s life is going to get a lot easier, even if he doesn’t know it yet.

But then again, maybe it won’t. As with the title character in the Coens’ “Barton Fink,” or Larry Gopnik in “A Serious Man,” Llewyn is left hanging. He seems caught in a metaphysical cycle of recurrence, ending the movie almost exactly where he began it — beaten up in an alley behind the Gaslight Cafe, having just played the same song (“Hang Me, Oh Hang Me”) and having repeated the same line (“If it was never new and it never gets old, it’s a folk song”). Like many of the Coens’ movies, “Inside Llewyn Davis” has the gothic atmosphere of a folk tale; Llewyn is even followed by a cat he can’t shake, despite abandoning it on the highway in the middle of the night.

At the same time, “Inside Llewyn Davis” — which is loosely based on “The Mayor of MacDougal Street,” a memoir by folk and jazz musician Dave Van Ronk — attains a level of historical detail that is likely to please die-hard folkies. Characters include Mel Novikoff (Jerry Grayson), a stand-in for Folkways Records founder Moses Asch, and Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham), a version of Albert Grossman, who became Bob Dylan’s manager. The political and cultural undercurrents of the era are also deftly referenced. When Llewyn jokes with the clerk at the Merchant Marine about being a communist, the clerk asks back, under his breath, “A Shachtmanite?”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • What could be wrong with a bunch of guys kicking back with a steak and a couple of beers and talking about the Seder? Try everything. #ManSeder
  • BREAKING: Smirking killer singled out Jews for death in suburban Kansas City rampage. 3 die in bloody rampage at JCC and retirement home.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.