How Does “Inside Llewyn Davis” Rank In the Coen Brothers Canon? (short review)

For more than two years, I have been anticipating the new Joel and Ethan Coen movie loosely based on the life of folksinger David Van Ronk, Inside Llewyn Davis. Although the Coen Brothers movie may not live up to my expectations of another great integration of story, humor, and music as in O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), Inside Llewyn Davis is another very good film from the Coen Brothers.

Inside Llewyn Davis follows Llewyn Davis, played by Oscar Isaac, as a struggling folksinger in 1961 Greenwich Village. This review will not give away too much of the story, but the film follows Davis moving around trying to find a couch to sleep on while he struggles to make a living with his music. The movie opens with Davis giving a moving performance of the traditional folk song “Hang Me Oh Hang Me.” In that scene, the actor and musician Isaac immediately conveys the musical soul of Davis.

But as in several other Coen Brothers movies, we see that the world is not quite fair. Others do not recognize Davis’s talents, while we see other more polished and less soulful groups on the rise. But Davis is not an innocent, as he often contributes to his own troubles.

In addition to Isaac, the film features a number of excellent performances by Justin Timberlake, Carey Mulligan, and Coen Brothers film regular John Goodman. The music is pretty good too, but not O Brother good even though producer T Bone Burnett was involved in both movies. Perhaps one thing that prevented the music from taking off for me was that the film seemed to want me to distinguish between “bad” folk music and “good” folk music, even as I wanted to enjoy the “bad” songs too, like the ridiculous but fun “Please Mr. Kennedy.”

Although critics are giving the movie great reviews as show by Rotten Tomatoes 93% rating, I also understand why the Rotten Tomatoes audience rating is almost 20 points lower at only 75%. At times, the lead character’s faults seem to override his charm or the usual Coen Brothers sense of humor (even if that humor does usually carry doses of cynicism and fatalism). Also, one might find that the film plays like a series of vignettes rather than a plot-driven story.

If I were to rate this film among the Coen Brothers catalog, it would still fit among my top ten Coen Brothers films, although maybe it would be around ninth. On the other hand, even if Inside Llewyn Davis is not in league with movies like Fargo (1996) and No Country for Old Men (2007) that blew me away at the first viewing, I suspect that I may grow to love the movie more on repeated viewings, as has happened with me for films like A Serious Man (2009) and Miller’s Crossing (1990).

In other words, I look forward to seeing Inside Llewyn Davis again. And I also plan to pick up folksinger David Van Ronk’s memoir that inspired the film, The Mayor of MacDougal Street. Meanwhile, I suggest you check out Inside Llewyn Davis for yourself.

How would you rank Inside Llewyn Davis among the Coen Brothers catalog? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    The Coolest Thing About the Opening of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

    The excellent Coen Brothers’ movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) opens with a scene of prisoners in the old South working on a road and singing the work song “Po’ Lazarus.” Unlike many of the other songs on the T-Bone Burnett produced soundtrack, though, “Po’ Lazarus” was not recorded specifically for the film.

    Recording of “Po’ Lazarus”

    The recording of “Po’ Lazarus” was one of the many recordings made by Alan Lomax and his father John Lomax. The two men visited the Mississippi State Penitentiary in 1959 and recorded prisoner James Carter leading a group of other prisoners in the song.

    That recording of “Po’ Lazarus” later appeared on Lomax’s 1960’s album Bad Man Ballads credited to James Carter and the Prisoners. The song recounts a sheriff going to arrest Lazarus.  Then, the sheriff ends up shooting “Po’ Lazarus”: “Well then they taken old Lazarus/ Yes they laid him on the commissary gallery.”

    Finding James Carter

    But that background is not even the coolest part of the story. According to The Southern Journey of Alan Lomax by Tom Piazza, the Coen Brothers movie brought a little more good will to singer James Carter.

    After the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou? became a bestseller, Alan Lomax’s daughter Lomax Chairetakis and others tracked down the 76-year-old Carter living in Chicago. They gave him a substantial royalty check.  And then in February 2002 flew him, his wife, and two daughters to the Grammy Awards ceremony.  At the ceremony, the soundtrack won the album of the year for 2001.

    The New York Times noted that Carter had left home at age 13 and did time in prison for theft, a parole violation, and weapons possession.  Before his rediscovery, he barely recalled singing the song for the recording.

    James Carter passed away in November 2003, less than two years after his trip to the Grammys. The other prisoners in the recording have never been identified. But together they created an outstanding recording used in a classic film.

    What is your favorite song from O Brother, Where Art Thou? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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