The new movie from Joel and Ethan Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis, is about a solipsistic struggling folk singer with very few redeeming qualities besides his musical talent. Brilliantly played by Oscar Isaac, who sang all his parts live, Llewyn travels between couches and gigs waiting for his break in the Greenwich Village folk scene of the 1960s.
The actual time frame isn't set out as precisely in the film, but if you wanted to place the action of Llewyn Davis, it would be somewhere between the beginning of 1960, with the opening of Folk City, a famous folk music haunt, and Bob Dylan's arrival one year later. Dylan's presence would transform the quaint folk scene into a music and culture epicentre, but it's that pre-Dylan period that the Coens wanted to explore more in depth.
It's a "lost cultural moment in music history," Ethan says on the phone from New York.
The film was also a chance for the Coens to work with executive music producer T Bone Burnett again, the man behind the bluegrass-heavy, Grammy Award-winning O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack, which in turn inspired a new generation of artists to pursue folk, including Mumford & Sons (fittingly, Marcus Mumford sings the voice of Llewyn's deceased music partner in the film).
Below, we speak to Joel and Ethan about that pre-Dylan era of music and authenticity, as well as Oscar Isaac, Justin Timberlake and folk legend Dave Van Ronk, who inspired the title character.
You chose a very specific period in time, the pre-Dylan Greenwich Village scene, to set the movie. Why?
Joel: I don’t know, because it is so specific, you know where you are, it’s this well defined scene with a small group of people interested in old folk music. There is something more interesting in it, by virtue of being contained and not as commercial.
Ethan: We were also aware of and interested in the fact that this scene was on the cusp of a cultural change in the music, so we were attached to that moment because it was the moment before things changed radically.
It was also an era that was primarily concerned with authenticity, and straddling that line between being successful and being authentic.
Joel: Well, they were more obsessed with that issue, they defined themselves that way, as being authentic to that era rather than looking for commercial success. Which is funny from our point of view, because it seems a little more innocent, naive or childish.
Ethan: Or quaint.
The movie really makes you wonder whether Llewyn, for all his posturing, is even authentic.
Ethan: It’s the hallmark of that whole scene, just how that obsession engendered all kinds of strange ironies and amusing contradictions.
Joel: Like Ramblin' Jack [Elliott], who had this upper middle class New York background, and whose real name was Elliot Adnopoz.
It’s like, you’re from New York City, how can you be authentic folk?
Ethan: Exactly, usually folk music comes from a specific region that these artists wouldn't be a part of, but there’s something great about musicians wanting to do this music. It’s phony in a way but it’s real in a way.
Joel: It’s interesting when you look at Jack, or Bob Dylan, for that matter, who completely invented his past and reinvented himself. Jack was a neurosurgeon from Queens but in a sense he was as authentic a cowboy as any others that you could find that were out there roping steers. He took it all on in a deep way.
I know you’re both Dylan fans, but were you fans of this earlier folk revival music as well?
Joel: Yes, and to a large degree because of Bob — you like Dylan or any of the other music from that era, so you become interested in its antecedents. Just like if you’re interested in the folk music from O Brother, Where Art Thou?, you’re going to be interested in the music that was an attempt to revive it a generation later.
It’s interesting you bring that up, one movie being about the original period of this music, the other about the attempt to revive it. Was there an intentional attempt to connect O Brother and Llewyn Davis?
Ethan: We were aware of the connection, that’s the accurate way to put it.
Joel: It was intentional in two respects: one in that it’s all part of the same river; the other in that this way, perhaps prosaically more intentional, there was a desire to work with [executive music producer] T Bone Burnett again and do something with him that was the same but a little bit different.
Maybe when I watched the movie I was looking more than I should have, but thematically I was also thinking, first, there’s the music, but also both stories are about an anti-hero on his way home, and somewhere in the middle he runs into John Goodman.
Joel: Yeah, a monster on the way.
Ethan: All of that’s completely true [laughs].
Now, Dave Van Ronk, who inspired this film, did you know of him before or was he new to you?
Joel: Definitely old fans. That was one of the things that got us thinking about that period because Dave was the biggest fish in that small pond.
Ethan: And his memoir [The Mayor of MacDougal Street], when it came out, we were already thinking about the premise for this movie, but it restimulated it. It’s just a really good book, very funny, very evocative, so it got us going on the idea again.
Joel: It’s not that this movie is in any way about Dave Van Ronk, but he was, in a sense, the person that brought us to it, invited us to think about that scene in a deeper way.
He’s an artist that never really got his due, and I wonder if it will invite people to discover him the same way O Brother invited people into bluegrass?
Ethan: I hope so. He’s a wonderful musician with so much good music, but that period right there, right at the end of the ‘50s and the beginning of the ‘60s, are a lost cultural moment in music history. People know less and less about the music that was being played at that moment.
Can we talk about Oscar Isaac’s performance, which is even more incredible when you learn it was completely live, with no click tracks or technological help. Was that a goal from the beginning, or just good fortune?
Joel: That was really strange. To someone who doesn’t make movies and knows nothing about multiple takes, they would have no idea of what an accomplishment that is. It’s uncanny.
Ethan: Oscar was dropped into our laps. There was a point in casting this where we actually thought, because of the skill set we were looking for was so specific — an actor who was right for this part who could carry a movie and convince you they are a musician, with the chops to do these songs in their entirety, live, multiple times — in a sense we were worried it was possible that person didn’t exist.
Joel: You’re not entitled to assume that exists anywhere.
I feel like he could release a folk album and do well for himself.
Ethan: We sent his tape of his audition to T Bone and he said, "This guy is a better musician than a lot of session guys I play with."
Joel: He would’ve done well in that scene. Better than he does in the movie.
Another great casting was Justin Timberlake. It’s impossible to not know him as a huge pop star, so it’s funny seeing him as this campy folk singer. That thought must have crossed your mind in casting?
Joel: We know he’s a pop star, but if he hadn’t been, we still would have asked him. I’m not even sure to what degree the baggage was a plus; it wasn’t a negative, but it didn’t figure strongly.
Ethan: It reverberates for audiences more than we could have credited. We were less aware of that than you’d think we’d be, or perhaps should have been.
Joel: We’re old and ignorant. Some of the reviews mentioned we had a couple of actors from Girls the TV show [Adam Driver and Alex Karpovsky]. We didn’t know. I’ve never seen Girls.
Last question. Llewyn has this great line: “If it was never new and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song.” Where is that from?
Joel: Ethan came up with that early.
Ethan: That was a weird script problem where we wanted something hooky enough that you would remember it when it came up again.
It’s a great hook.
Ethan: I didn’t know there was such a thing as hook rights, but somebody told me it’s a Nashville thing where you just come up with a hook line and you can sell it, like, “a thousand light beers away,” and there you go, you have a hook right there.
Follow Jesse Kinos-Goodin on Twitter: @JesseKG
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on Dec 19, 2013