Looks pretty good right? Now if you are thinking “this is not my type of movie, I don’t even like folk music” hold on one second. Yes, the movie focuses around the folk-music industry during the early 1960s. However, the movie is not only about folk-music it is also about the artist. In the movie we follow the proud yet disheartened folk musician Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) for a week as he struggles to make himself known as a solo artist in the Greenwich Village folk-music scene. Although the music is a central element to the story-line the movie isn’t a musical either. In fact Tom Shone is very accurate in describing the movie as an anti-musical. Llewyn Davis sings because the “plot requires it” and “not in happiness, but out of pain.”
Llewyn Davis does not end up being the next Bob Dylan, he does not come to grips fully with rejection and loss, and we are left as an audience where we began….in an ally with a beat up Llewyn Davis before our eyes.
Yet as I sat there discussing the movie with friends I began to love the movies lack of progression more and more, and upon further evaluation realized the importance the musical pieces have in defining Llewyn Davis. As Llewyn Davis develops throughout the film, the tone and message of his songs change, and he begins to accept that he does not have the will to become a folk artist.
Starting at the first scene I will go through some of the major numbers of the movie that work towards Llewyn Davis’ ultimate farewell to folk music and demonstrate his growth as a character.
Hang Me, Oh Hang Me
We are first introduced to Llewyn Davis as he sings this song in the Gaslight Café in 1961. He is performing as a solo artist after losing his music partner, Mike, to suicide. This song captures his depression and endless cycle of pain that he is experiencing at the beginning of (and throughout) the movie. Not only is the atmosphere important in defining his character but so are the lyrics. The first verse of the song:
gives the audience some insight that he has been struggling as an artist for some time now. He has been through many hardships and nothing has worked in his favor. Thus causing him to almost be at the point of giving up and calling it quits on his musical career.listen to “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me”
Fare Thee Well
This is the first time that we witness Llewyn Davis sing this song-or attempt to sing this song I should say. When asked to sing for the Gorfeins dinner guest he makes it about 30 seconds into the song when Mrs. Gorfein begins to sing Mike’s part causing Llewyn to stop mid-song. Although we don’t get to hear most of the lyrics during this number we are given a glimpse of Llewyn’s true character. Llewyn is often portrayed as callous and stubborn, and yet here we see that he is vulnerable. He is still grieving his friend’s death, and has yet to reconcile that loss with his music. He ends his performance never finishing the line “fare thee well oh hone-“ perhaps representing the fact that he is not yet ready to say goodbye to his partner or to his folk music career.
The Death of Queen Jane
Llewyn’s performance of “The Death of Queen Jane” is the major transition point of the movie. He is still grieving the death of his partner, realized that he has fathered a child and has recognized that multiple people are questioning his music and his life and maybe he should be too. All these emotions pour out into this song in order to impress the Gate of Horn owner Bud Grossman. In spite of his moving performance, Mr. Grossman simply states “I don’t see a lot of money here.” He doesn’t believe that Llewyn Davis would be prosperous as a solo act and offers him a part in a trio he is putting together. I believe this is where Llewyn Davis decides a career in music is not for him. He still loves and appreciates it. However, he is starting to recognize that his approach to music does not fit into the music industry mold of that time, and he is not willing to change himself in order to fit that mold. Sam Adam makes the case that the song “reflects his mixed feelings about his (possibly) two children, one alive and unseen, the other unborn and soon to be dead and (Llewyn’s) self-sacrifice.” As he puts down his guitar and sings the last few verses:
we witness his very own internal debate. If he ends the pursuit of his career as a folk artist he would be losing his flower, the music he has devoted his life to, and in turn lose himself (the branch). So just as “poor Queen Jane beloved lay cold as the stone” in the song, such is the loss of his career and his will to try and save it. And maybe Adam is correct in saying that Llewyn has to “suffer a kind of symbolic death” in order to be able to move on from his loss and rejection. Perhaps letting his music die is the only way to break his cycle of suffering and be able to grow as an individual.listen to “The Death of Queen Jane”
Shoals of Herring
After being rejected at the Gate of Horn club in Chicago, Llewyn decides that folk music isn’t what he is cut out to do and he makes plans to leave and become a member of the merchant marines. However, before leaving he visits his father and sings a favorite song of his, “The Shoals of Herring”, in order to try and communicate with him. As he ends with the verse:
we are reminded of the toils that he has endured, and the endless cycle of defeat he seems to be caught in. I think at this moment he begins to except the fact that despite any emotional ties he has to folk music, he can’t find success in it and it is time to leave. After all he is “growing up, growing old and dying” and for him to survive… he must move on.Listen to “The Shoals of Herring”
Fare Thee Well
This is the last performance that we see Llewyn Davis perform, and is said to be one of the climaxes of the movie according to the cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel in an interview. Again we are back in the Gaslight Café, watching Llewyn Davis pour his soul out to the audience. This is his farewell to folk music, his final goodbye to the only life he has known. As he sings the last lines:
we are reminded (and perhaps he is too) that maybe just maybe if he would have listened to the producers, joined a trio or branched out more, he might have made it as an artist. However we are left as an audience not knowing how Llewyn Davis’ story will end.Listen to “Fare Thee Well”
As Llewyn Davis leaves the Gaslight Café to meet the stranger out back, thus completing the cycle and his journey, we are treated with “farewell” performed by Bob Dylan in the Café. We are reminded of what came out of the Greenwich Village folk scene as Bob Dylan is about to take the world by storm. Thus realizing that Llewyn Davis would have never stood a chance in his current state. Looking at the lyrics:
Oh the weather is against me and the wind blows hard
And the rain she’s a-turnin’ into hail.
I still might strike it lucky on a highway goin’ west,
Though I’m travelin’ on a path beaten trail.
We are reminded of the obstacles he has faced during the week that we witness. There is something in him that thought that he had a chance-that he could have “made it big.” However, if he were to continue now he would just be traveling on a trail behind the great Bob Dylan. A shadow behind one of the greatest folk artist of all time. And as Bob Dylan sings:
“It ain’t the leavin’
That’s a-grievin’ me
But my true love who’s bound to stay behind”
we can think back to Llewyn Davis and the journey he has just completed and how it has caused him to leave his one true love, folk-music, behind.listen to “Farewell”
As David Brusie states in his review of the soundtrack “film soundtracks can seldom be appreciated as standalone works, but the music from Inside Llewyn Davis is a notable, and welcome exception to the rule.” The music itself is great, but more important is how these pieces demonstrate the evolution of his character. As you can see the lyrics tell the tale of Llewyn Davis.
It shows his growth and his defeat as he realizes that he is not ready or just not cut-out to become a folk-artist. That is why this movie is so great (perhaps verging on brilliant). It is a movie about a man and his music and the Coen brothers allowed that music to tell the story of Llewyn Davis.
Brittney Eckman is a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where she is studying Biochemistry. When she isn’t working she enjoys reading, watching a good movie or playing volleyball.