Inside Llewyn Davis: Inspired by Real Events and Figures

The new film from Oscar winners Joel and Ethan Coen, follows a week in the life of a young folk singer at a crossroads, struggling to make it in the Greenwich Village folk scene of 1961.

Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac)—guitar in tow, huddled against the unforgiving New York winter—is beset by seemingly insurmountable obstacles, some of them of his own making. Living at the mercy of both friends and strangers, scaring up what work he can, Llewyn journeys from the basket houses of the Village to an empty Chicago club—on a misbegotten odyssey to audition for a music mogul—and back again.

Starring Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, and Garrett Hedlund, Inside Llewyn Davis is written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen and produced by Scott Rudin, Ethan Coen and Joel Coen. Executive producers are Robert Graf, Olivier Courson and Ron Halpern.

Brimming with music performed by Oscar Isaac, Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan (as Llewyn’s married Village friends), as well as Marcus Mumford and Punch Brothers, Inside Llewyn Davis—in the tradition of O Brother, Where Art Thou?—is infused with the transportive sound of another time and place.  An epic on an intimate scale, it represents the Coens’ fourth collaboration with executive music producer T Bone Burnett. Marcus Mumford, in his first collaboration with the Coens, is associate music producer.

“We were always interested in the music of the period, the so-called folk revival of the late 1950s, the thriving folk music scene that was taking place in the Village before Bob Dylan showed up—music that was being produced and played during what might be termed the beatnik scene of the 50s and early 60s,” says Joel Coen. “That period lasted only through the very early 1960s, and most people don’t know about it.”

The Coen Brothers, however, were very familiar with the songs from that time, and they found themselves particularly taken with a book written by the folk musician Dave Van Ronk that concentrated on the period. The book was called, The Mayor of MacDougal Street.  “It’s Van Ronk’s memoir which he started writing but died before completing,” says Ethan Coen.  “His friend, the journalist Elijah Wald, basically put it together for him. It’s less a memoir than it is interviews with Dave.” The Coens’ fascination with the book led them to dig deeper not only into Van Ronk’s story and his music, but also into his era and then create a fictional story about a folk singer in that world.

Ethan says, “One day Joel just said, ‘What about this? Here’s the beginning of a movie… A folk singer gets beat up in the alleyway behind Gerde’s Folk City.’ We thought about the scene, and then we thought, ‘Why would anyone beat up a folk singer?’ So it became a matter of trying to come up with a screenplay, a movie that could go around that and explain the incident.” Sitting down to research the period and then to develop the concept and write the screenplay, the brothers found the material a natural, comfortable.

“We already knew a lot of this music. If you’re into Bob Dylan, which both Ethan and I are, you can’t help but know about this music because Dylan drew on it so heavily and in such an interesting way. He’s such an interesting interpreter of that music,” says Joel. “If you trace it back far enough it’s all Americana, the same kind of music, the same family tree, the same species of song we used in O Brother, Where Art Thou?”, Joel says referring to their hit film.

“We’ve both been interested in this traditional American folk music a long time. We felt the folk music revival of the 50s was in part a revival of the traditional American folk musical forms we’d always been aware of and loved. “A lot of this music is really beautiful. And its revival developed into what we think of as the singer-songwriter ‘thing,’ which is different from traditional folk music.”

How Dylan embraced that folk music and the singer-songwriter phenomenon that grew out of it, and where he went with it, is all of great interest to the Coens. But for the story they had in mind the brothers wanted to look back at that earlier era of folk, the era just before Dylan—rather than in the direction in which Dylan took it. “People know much more about Bob Dylan—his story and his music—than about this period, because he was such an important and transformative figure,” Joel Coen says. “He arrived in 1961 and changed everything.”

The Coens steeped themselves in the folk period of the late 50s and very early 60s, watching various documentaries, including one that John Sebastian’s brother made about Vince Martin, a Village figure from those days who performed in the duo Martin and Neil with singer Fred Neil.  One aspect of the era that especially intrigued the brothers was the quest for authenticity that so many of the folk artists and the emerging singer-songwriters of the day strived for; they all seemingly shared a profound fear of achieving success and ‘selling out.’

“When you read about the scene you see this mania for authenticity,” Joel says. “You have these guys like Elliot Adnopoz, the son of a neurosurgeon from Queens, calling himself Ramblin’ Jack Elliot. In the film, we have a character who sings and plays a guitar, wears a cowboy hat and calls himself Al Cody. His real name is Arthur Milgram.”

The brothers also looked at variety shows from the era and read Dylan’s memoir, in which he talked at length about what the music scene was like when he arrived in New York, at the time Llewyn Davis takes place. But it was Van Ronk’s memoir about the Village music scene and its antecedents that was the lodestar for them in creating the story they wanted to tell.

“Dave Van Ronk was not a songwriter,” Ethan says. “He wrote a few songs, but that wasn’t his scene. A lot of what he sang was traditional folk songs, songs that could be interpreted and performed in a variety of ways,” and which each performer is free to approach differently. Ethan points out that though the character Llewyn Davis plays songs often associated with Van Ronk—songs like ‘Hang Me,’ ‘Dink’s Song,’ and ‘Green Rocky Road’—Oscar Isaac’s performances in the film don’t attempt to channel Van Ronk’s style per se.

The songs of Inside Llewyn Davis come from the same family of American music that inspired O Brother, Where Are Thou?, and Llewyn Davis shares a powerful connection to O Brother in spite of differences between the two works in tone, content and style. “We wanted to make another film that was driven by music, and in that sense the two films are similar,” Joel says.

The manner of presenting the music in the two films, however, differs significantly. “In this movie we wanted entire songs to be played out,” Ethan says. “O Brother used music in a more conventional way. You get little bits of songs on the soundtrack. Here we wanted whole song to be done in their entirety. The film actually begins that way. You watch Llewyn performing for a whole three minutes. We liked the idea of that. You don’t know where you are in terms of scene setting—there’s no story yet. You’re just watching a performance.”

Another link between Inside Llewyn Davis and some of the Coens’ previous work is the brothers’ close collaboration on this film with executive music producer T Bone Burnett. “T Bone is part of the mix from the beginning, when we’re starting to write the script and we really don’t know specifically what the music is going to be—and we just know that there’s going to be a character who plays something,” Joel says. “A lot of what we decide and then write in the screenplay comes directly from talking to T Bone, from the three of us tossing out ideas.”