Whenever I plug in an iPod, my father likes to tell me the story of his first year of college. Back then, goes the story, he was the only guy on his dormitory floor who owned a record player, and whenever a new album came out, the gang would rush back to his room to give it a spin. Dylan records were a particularly big event; Dad was a 19-year-old Newport kid when Dylan blew the doors off the local Folk Festival in 1965, an event that transformed him—and his generation—in a way hard to imagine in today’s endlessly subdivided musical world.
This week, the Coen Brothers—those hard-to-define geniuses who have given us films like The Big Lebowski and Miller’s Crossing—bring us back in time when they return to area screens with Inside Llewyn Davis, a new feature that rolls back the clock to the heady days of the 1960s folk music scene in New York’s Greenwich Village.
The relatively unknown Oscar Isaac (Drive, Sucker Punch) stars as the title character, a bearded folksinger trying to make it work as a musician in a sometimes unforgiving city. To be clear, this is not the Greenwich Village that Bob Dylan would make famous soon after—in the days before he blew in, the folk scene in the Village was considerably different, filled with earnest traditionalists and their autoharps. To that world, Dylan was a dangerous strutting peacock; the Coens’ Davis takes his cue from the generation that preceded the Midwestern invader.
Success, though, does not come easily. His old singing partner threw himself off the George Washington Bridge, but even that is met with disdain. “George Washington Bridge? You throw yourself off the Brooklyn Bridge, traditionally,” says Roland Turner (Coen regular John Goodman), a drug-soaked jazz musician who shares a car to Chicago with Davis. Going it as a solo artist proves harder than expected, a situation not made any easier by his mooching ways or sour, acerbic personality. The only living thing he seems to take a shine to is a cat he mistakenly lets loose from an apartment where he’s crashing.
Like many of the Coens’ protagonists, Davis is his own worst enemy, so caught up in trying to create the self that he wants to be that he screws up most of the chances he gets to be the person he should be. Of course, sometimes—as when he teams up with Justin Timberlake’s folksinger Jim to perform the latter’s “Please Mr. Kennedy,” a singsong plea of “don’t shoot me into outer space,” one hopes that Davis won’t be able to hold his tongue.
As with their earlier music story O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the Coens have teamed up with music producer T-Bone Burnett to give the soundtrack just the right mix of polish and amateur enthusiasm that characterizes so much of American music. And that mix, in the end, says volumes about not just the folk scene or even about a wider music, but also about our willingness as a people to invent and reinvent ourselves without shame. We may not always be the best at what we do—in fact, we rarely come close—but that never stops us from pushing ahead, even if only one of us will turn out to be the next Bob Dylan.•
Jack Brown can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.