Inside Llewyn Davis: Narrative and Characters

In the Coens’ screenplay the audience discovers the character of Llewyn at a crossroads in his life and career, adrift in the New York folk scene of 1961. When they began to write, the brothers took as a starting point the opening image of a folk singer getting beaten up in a back alley of a Village folk club; the question they then asked themselves was, “How did this character get here—what were the events that led to this?”

According to the Coens, when they sit down to write they only have the most general idea of where the story is going. “We never, including on this movie, do an outline or figure out what’s going to happen, how the screenplay’s going to unfold,” Ethan says. “We just start writing with the first scene and we see where it goes.” “In this case, though, we did know how we wanted it to end,” Joel says. When we meet him, Llewyn is struggling to make it as a single act after the suicide of his singing partner, Mike Timlin.  He is eager, almost desperate for success, so he can earn a little bit of money; on the other hand he wants to remain true to himself.

Circular Story

The screenplay begins and ends with Llewyn enduring a beating outside the Gaslight Café; in the final pages of the script Llewyn finds himself walking into a predicament that bears a mysterious resemblance to the one he walks into in the script’s opening pages.  “One thing we wanted from the beginning was to have a circular structure to the story,” says Joel. “It was always the idea, even before the whole story was thought through, that it was going to wind up in the place where it started. And we knew that it was always going to take place within a compressed period of time, a tiny slice of time—roughly a week maybe.”

“Another thing that was always on our minds, as we wrote, was when—exactly when, at the end of the movie—we were going to let the audience know that the story was coming, so to speak, back to the present,” Ethan says. “When will the audience get the idea that the story is kind of completing a circle?” The brothers explain that they carefully constructed the closing scene at the Gaslight: “It isn’t until the scene at the very end, when you go back to Llewyn performing Hang Me’ at the Gaslight—just as he did in the opening—that we put in certain things to tell the audience that they’re watching the identical moment they saw earlier,” Joel points out. “Llewyn could sing the same song any number of different nights—it’s part of his repertoire. So we had to very specifically think about how to illustrate that this was not just Llewyn singing the same song twice, but that this was the same actual performance from the beginning of the movie,” Ethan says.

Joel says: “The shot of Llewyn coming off stage, after his number isn’t covered by the camera in the same way as it is in the beginning, but the scene repeats the same dialogue, so you realize you’re watching the same event, from a different angle.” This shot also expands on the moment. Llewyn performs a chorus of ‘Fare Well’ (‘Dink’s Song’) after ‘Hang Me.’ At that point the performance is over and he walks off stage. The story has now come full circle.


Peter, Paul and Mary

The characters who populate Llewyn’s story are an amalgam of impressions the Coens have of certain historical characters and fictional creations of their own imagination.  Jean and Jim Berkey, for instance, in particular as they perform with their friend Troy Nelson at the Gaslight Café, recall in some ways the folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary.  “In fact, in the script we gave them a Peter, Paul and Mary song to sing—‘500 Miles’,” Joel says. Ethan says, “There was a real act called Jim and Jean but all we essentially took from them—from their act—was their names. I have no idea who they were as people. Jim and Jean, as they are in the movie, they are our invention. We thought of Jim and Jean as the more clean-cut version of the folk scene.”

Roland Turner: John Goodman

“With the character of Roland Turner we were thinking about the New Orleans, old-school, jazz guys, and Dr. John,” Ethan says. “Roland is a composite, on the surface, of various figures.”

As played by John Goodman, he is an amalgam of the screen persona of Orson Welles and Burl Ives.  Many viewers perceive him to be a gay, or sexually ambiguous musician due to his relationships with his companion (who drives the car to Chicago).

Llewyn Davis: American Original

Llewyn is an original, wholly fictional character.  Inside Llewyn Davis—the title a reference to Van Ronk’s 1963 album, ‘Inside Dave Van Ronk’—isn’t in fact about Van Ronk. Like Van Ronk, Llewyn has a working class background, but otherwise he resembles Van Ronk only in that he shares his repertoire of songs—music that according to the Coens derives more from what they describe as the Scots-Irish-Anglo tradition as opposed to the Southern tradition of the blues.

Llewyn takes a physical beating or two in the story, but he takes a psychic beating as well. His contentious relationship with Jean Berkey, his best friend’s wife, weighs on Llewyn through the movie. Jean sleeps with Llewyn, only to go on the attack, telling him he’s got no ambition, isn’t getting anywhere—and everything he touches falls apart. When he lands a gig recording a song he thinks is inane about the newly elected President Kennedy, he somehow manages to lose out when the song becomes a hit.

The record Llewyn made on his own isn’t selling, and so he sets his hopes on being signed by Bud Grossman, a music producer and manager out of Chicago. A golden opportunity to audition for the legendary Grossman suddenly looms when a bizarre twosome—jazz musician Roland Turner and his companion Johnny Five—appears; they are driving cross country and need an extra hand for gas money. Llewyn is in.

Llewyn’s trip to Chicago is roughly inspired by an incident in Van Ronk’s life, in which Van Ronk suffers through a particularly embarrassing audition for the well-known folk managerAl Grossman (the model for the script’s Bud Grossman). Ethan says, “The trip to Chicago is not a big deal in Van Ronk’s reminiscences, but we felt the movie was so much about New York that the road trip would be a useful detour—we thought of it as a kind of foil that might set off New York in an interesting way.”

Llewyn’s loss of his Masters Mates and Pilots license is another detail the Coens borrowed from Van Ronk’s life, though Van Ronk shipped out twice with the merchant marines, he never returned to sea after losing his seaman’s papers, but otherwise Llewyn’s odyssey through New York—and the misfortunes that befall him—are the inventions of the Coens.