This Is Your Brain on Folk Music

Inside_Llewyn_Davis_Poster_72dpi_RGBInside Llewyn Davis, the latest film from the talented Coen Brothers, is finally out on DVD – I’ve been dying to see it, but it came and went quickly to theaters in Seattle, and I missed it. As a writer, I’m always interested in seeing what other creative people’s take is on creativity and the creative life in general. The wait was long, but it was worth it.

It’s one of those love-it-or-hate-it films (as is most of the Coen Brothers’ work) with quite a few people disappointed by it.  I loved it. I thought about it long into the night, and the next day found myself singing songs from the folk music scene of the early 60’s. Those were the years I began to get interested in poetry, read Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsburg and Kenneth Patchen. I subscribed as a teenager to the Village Voice (worlds away from my own non-Village home in San Jose, California – but hey, we had our own little coffee house called Freight and Salvage.) I took guitar lessons from Marty Ziegler, I listened to Richie Havens, Tom Paxton, the Clancy Brothers. In the movie, when a young clean-cut duo gets up to sing “The Last Thing on My Mind,”  I could sing every single word of it. What is it about memory – our brains on music – that allows us to call up song lyrics (and the touch, taste, smell, sound, and sights of the moments that surround them) so easily when we can’t even remember where we put our keys or our reading glasses? Here’s a wonderful rendition of it with Liam Clancy and Tom Paxton.

And many years later, those evenings spent singing folk songs with other faculty members of the Vermont College of Fine Arts, up in the faculty lounge late at night during our residencies, with Leda Schubert on guitar and my fellow Books-Around-the-Table friend Laura Kvasnosky sometimes there on ukulele – those moments were golden.

But my reaction to Inside Llewyn Davis isn’t all about nostalgia.

The film deserves attention from anyone involved in the arts because it examines creativity, talent, personality, ethics, integrity, commercialism, perseverance – and how all those elements get harnessed or go wandering off in an artist’s life. [If you have trouble with spoilers, you might want to skip the next few paragraphs. Me, I never mind knowing in advance what's coming - it helps me watch the scenes more carefully....]

There’s a scene in the movie where Llewyn has a chance, finally, to audition for Al Grossman (played beautifully by F. Murray Abraham, who did such a fantastic job in another movie which examines artistic talent, Amadeus.) Grossman was the manager in the 60’s of the famous music venue Gate of Horn in Chicago, and he represented most of the big folksingers of the decade – Peter, Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan, Odetta, Richie Havens, and – later – Janis Joplin.

The audition is Llewyn’s big chance, yet he chooses an obscure traditional ballad, a difficult song to perform, and Grossman responds by saying he doesn’t see much money in it. He gives Llewyn mixed advice, some good (look for a partner who can add depth with  harmonies) and some offensive (cut the beard into a goatee, clean up) and Llewyn simply walks away.

Llewyn's Audition with Al Grossman

Llewyn’s Audition with Al Grossman

It’s almost like the musician gives the manager a test by singing this ballad in its pure, traditional form – and Grossman fails the test. At least that’s how I saw it play out. Historically, of course, it was Dave Van Ronk (the real-life folksinger Llewyn is based on) who failed Grossman’s test and then drifted back into the small Gaslight Cafe scene of Greenwich Village rather than use the Gate of Horn and Grossman’s mentorship as a springboard for national success.

Inside Llewyn Davis didn’t garner the usual prizes or attention that Coen Brothers’ films usually do (think O Brother, Where Art Thou – which the wonderful T-Bone Burnett, a big part of Inside Llewyn Davis, also helped conceive.)  I’ve been trying to sort out why, and I’ve come to the conclusion that the hero of the tale is so complicated – it’s hard to understand him. Does he self-destruct over and over again, or is it just a hard, mean world for a struggling artist? He’s not always nice – in fact, he’s often unappealing: sarcastic, smug, dismissive, judgmental, irresponsible. He takes advantage of people, rotates through their apartments eating their food, using their couches to crash, sees himself as a person who does not compromise, is not interested in the real lives of other people. He’s all about himself and his music – and you never quite know if he lost his musical partner to suicide because of troubles the partner had or because of how little joy or support Llewyn was capable of. Nevertheless, one of the crew says (in the Special Features section – watch that, it’s fascinating, especially T-Bone Burnett talking about jamming for the movie) that she thinks everyone in the movie is a phony except Llewyn. I didn’t feel that way at all – I guess it’s all about perspective. But in a certain way, as a writer, I empathized with Llewyn’s attempts to stay true to his talent. Besides, he’s just so sad. Even a person who does it to himself deserves some sympathy, no?

So please, rent the movie, watch it and come to your own conclusions. Talented artists are not always easy people to get along with, and Llewyn is not a nice-guy hero. The same was true about Mozart in Amadeus, of course – Salieri, his less talented colleague, watches as the miserably adolescent Mozart giggles his way to fame and fortune. Llewyn has his own failings – and he’s no Mozart-level genius. So…is the film saying that a lack of talent does him in, or a too-highly-honed sense of integrity, or just plain bad luck being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or his own disaffections or….? What are the Coen Brothers telling us about artistic endeavors? I’m not sure yet. If you’ve seen the film, help me figure it out – add a comment below. Why do some artists make it and others don’t? What, as an artist, do you owe to your own talent? Is the world a hospitable or hostile place for artists? And is Llewyn actually a talented artist or an Almost-but-not-quite? Or is he despicable, as many viewers claim?  What does the world owe him? What does he owe the world? As writers, we can think about that a bit.

llewynAnd what do you think the cat is all about?

Gosh, I love a movie – or a book or a song or a painting or any work of art – that leaves you thinking.

While we think about the answers to those questions, let’s go put on a few of our old records (still have a phonograph?) and be amazed by our musical memory. How many you can sing along to from Bob Dylan’s “Freewheelin’,” Richie Haven’s “Mixed Bag,” Ian and Sylvia, Peter Paul and Mary, the Clancy Brothers, Tom Paxton, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez? Hey, how about Dave Van Ronk’s incomparable “Dink’s Song,” which you’ll recognize as Llewyn’s signature piece. Lovely song.

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3 responses to “This Is Your Brain on Folk Music

  1. Couldn’t agree more!!! For me, Llewyn Davis “makes it” because he remains true to his beautiful art and keeps on. His audience is small, but still he’s heard. The scene with Grossman, as you say, is key, the most chilling line in the film: “I don’t see the money in it,” followed by the insipid, cloying performance by the clean-shaven soldier, the sure-fire money boy, the one Grossman’s backing.

  2. Thanks for sharing this, Julie.

    I’m inclined to view the film as deeply nostalgic, but with the telling remove of successful creators too young for the early 1960s who are transmuting their memories of the early 1980s–that untested time before BLOOD SIMPLE, the Coens’ first feature–into a marketable myth.

    Why the distancing? In full-on BARTON FINK fashion, I could cynically say that the ’80s are not as “sellable” as the ’60s as a last bastion of artistic integrity. (Even the punk movement of the 1970s has a better claim.) So we are transported back not 30, but 50 years to catch the actual nostalgia of Baby Boomers and the wish fulfillment of Gen Xers like me who sometimes feel like all the real wars have already been both lost and won.

    But I enjoyed the movie very much for its visuals and sounds, so I choose to view INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS through the double lens of irony. It is, in a way, an inversion of the classic figure of the innocent-ingénue-who-makes-good: the incipient-genius-who-makes-inconclusive. After we have achieved, it is the incipient, not the innocent, we hunger for. Because the pristine is mostly vacuous and can always be tarnished by time, but the potential has a history but can still become anything (or nothing) at all.

    How interesting.

    Steven Withrow

  3. Oh, how I loved this post! And I’m so glad you included the song “Last Thing on my Mind.” Just as the whole crowd joined in at the first notes, I did, too, and it felt so good. I’m eager to see the movie.

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