I‘ll start out by saying that, in my opinion, the most egregious error that the Coen’s made with Inside Llewyn Davis was using the names “Jim and Jean” for the characters in the film. It fuels the mostly unwarranted complaints that people are being misrepresented in the movie … and has been making a lot of us folkies act like the cartoons from “A Mighty Wind” as we wring hands over how the community and times are represented. Names or not, *none* of the characters in the film were intended to be a documentary representation of any of the real players during that time … and most of the apoplectic angst over how the film serves Van Ronk and the early Revival community misses the point entirely. (It’s a MOVIE, and people are entitled to like or dislike it … but the claims of insult that are permeating social media are, for the most part, ridiculous.)
I’ll admit to liking the movie. With all due respect, I liked it a lot more than contributor Rob Weir who reviewed the film elsewhere on these pages. But that’s really not what’s got my dander up here.
I first met Dave Van Ronk back in the mid-1970s, long after the period represented in the film, but I knew him casually and as a friend for the last couple decades of his life. Like many of you, I read his posthumously released memoir The Mayor of MacDougal Street (co-written with Elijah Wald) and loved it … but I make no claims to a better understanding or knowledge of Dave than some of the most vocal negative critiquers out there. My own, clear and educated guess about how Van Ronk would feel about the film differs wildly from those pans, however.
Back in 1985/6, I remember scoring an invite to one of Dave’s semi-regular Wednesday spaghetti dinners after installing a ceiling fan in his apartment (which he regularly chided me about … calling it the “fan of Damocles”). After dinner, it was wine and conversation. As a relatively green “folk music editor,” I was all in a tizzy over the then recent emergence of the Washington Squares, a NYC-based trio that I thought a crude caricature of early revival-era groups that was confusing and misrepresenting the style, history and music of the era. Dave, with the friendship of a wiser, older brother, pretty much laughed in my face. “Don’t knock ’em, Mark … if they get the attention of non-folky media, it can’t be anything other than good for us!”
This led into a long, fun and educating discussion of purists, the Mouldy Fig Wars, the folly of trying to define tradition, and a whole lot more. I can’t say whether Dave would like Inside Llewyn Davis as a movie, but there’s simply no way he’d have been offended by it. And I’d hazard a guess he’d be laughing that raspy, deep and phlegm-riddled laugh as he cheer-leaded the film toward as much coverage as possible.
Repeating for emphasis … here’s the thing: While there are a number of scenes and seasonings that move through the movie that are drawn right from Van Ronk’s story, neither Llewyn Davis nor any of the other characters in the film were intended to be true biographical/documentary representations of anyone, living or dead. Nor was the film intending to chronicle the broader sociological impact or experience of the Folk Revival and the tumultuous times it lived in. It’s a small vignette covering a week in the life of a talented but self-crippling folk artist in the week before Bob Dylan hit the scene, heralding a seismic change for all of music … AND all of the artists struggling in the basket houses of the day.
Contrary to some complaints, I think the folk community was shown in pretty good light overall. The audiences shown were rapt, attentive and appreciative of the music. The camaraderie between artists, sharing sessions, encouragement and whatever little means they had was also quite evident in the film. And while I’d argue it mostly impossible to totally match the magic of the original artists of the day, I think that T Bone Burnett (and all the performers shown) did a fantastic job of recreating the feel of the music being made: the mix of innocence and reverence to tradition, all while trying to make something current and new, too.
Bottom line: I know and love a number of the most vocal complainers out there. Each has her or his right to an opinion. But I don’t find that the dismissive or “outraged” parts of their critiques hold much water. I quite enjoyed the film, and had a lot of fun identifying the pieces of set, stories and characters and touched on the history I know and love. I’m a longtime fan of the Coens (since Blood Simple) and while this is not nearly their best work, it was an engaging 100+ minutes of my leisure. And while Burnett’s musical leadership here is unlikely to make the splash that O Brother did, the music of Inside Llewyn Davis is worth a listen too.
Oh … and to borrow advice from the Mayor of MacDougal Street himself: Let’s ride this attention to that time, community and music as far as it can take us!
— Mark D. Moss