Llewyn Davies is just another struggling folk singer in a Greenwich Village that is so choked with them that it must have been like being a country singer in Nashville today. What he sings sounds pretty good – sometimes really good. But his music is starkly at odds with the chaos and the casual wrongness of his life. As the film develops you learn just how wrong it is, just how broken, and his erstwhile singing partner Mike's role in his trajectory becomes increasingly important.
Sometimes it felt like this film was little more than an auteur exercise in making you care about someone whose charms, perhaps were mostly superficial. It's pretty effective at that – even when my expectations were being smashed, Coen-style, I did realise that I was starting to care about what happened to this man. There are a million million musicians out there and very few make anything like a solid career out of it. ** Small spoiler** It starts to seem increasingly clear that this musician, despite his nicely crafted material, just doesn't have that transcendent look of being willing to do anything to play – of really not caring whether you like it or not.
I think the Coens had a lot of fun with this film – kicking off their shoes and relaxing at the expense of the boho 60s Greenwich Village set, of folk music in particular, of all the Llewyn Davies' out there, and of every film ever made in New York. I saw glimpses of "Breakfast at Tiffanys" and "Manhattan", "Funny Face" and cinematography in gorgeously muted tones, that brought to mind a number of great available-light films from the late 60s/early 70s Golden Age. But there's a lot of love, for the music, for the genre and for the city.
The folk satire feels pretty spot on, an able ensemble cast drawing the latent comedy from the scenario. I loved Jean and Jim's hilariously cutesy double act, the marvellous Arran sweaters of the Irish quartet, the pretentious audiences, and there are even pointers to that nasal, trumpet-like "I can't sing but I'm going to anyway" folk style, still much beloved in British folk circles even today, and of which Bob Dylan was certainly a signed-up member. I remember a (BBC) radio documentary once where an African American musician said of Dylan, "he did not have what we in the black community would call a Strong Voice, but we all took notice when he had a new record out." So the fact that I'd rather listen to the fictional Llewyn Davies' pretty, evocative ballads than to Dylan's horn-like dirges misses the point – who made that contemporary audience feel that something new was happening? Who took it to the next level?
Ultimately this film is all about small, nicely observed iconoclastic moments. But I wouldn't get a budding young musician to watch it.