Losing nearly everything, even a friend's cat.
What was happening musically in 1961? Elvis' explosive debut was in the past, the Beatles' explosive debut was in the future, and for two weeks that February, the number-one single in the land was...Lawrence Welk's "Calcutta." The pop scene was experiencing a lull.
Meanwhile, in Greenwich Village and at campus coffeehouses, shaggy young people strummed acoustic guitars and sang "Hang down your head, Tom Dooley." I've long been interested in the folk revival, which peaked in the early 1960s and which isn't, these days, recalled all that vividly. It's probably best remembered for the enduring stars who came out of it, like Bob Dylan and Paul Simon.
But Dylan and Simon had their greatest success singing their own material. In those days many folkies focused narrowly on the traditional American songbook. That was, it's clear in retrospect, an artistic dead end.
A dead end is where the title character finds himself at the beginning of Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen brothers' gripping, grim musical drama about the period. The year is 1961. At the Village's Gaslight Cafe, Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) sings lovely traditional tunes like "Hang Me, Oh Hang Me," and he makes audience members laugh when he drops one-liners like, "It's never new and it never gets old -- it's a folk song."
Those are his good moments. His other moments are mostly bad. Homeless, he couch-surfs between gigs. He loses a friend's cat. His career is stalled.
He once belonged to a duo that had its fans, but it is permanently defunct. I won't disclose the reason, but I will observe that Llewyn's unhappiness seems to have a lot to do with his former partner. Isaac is pretty great in this role, though his character's snappishness and hostility at times make for tough watching.
Llewyn has uneasy relations with Jean (Carey Mulligan) and Jim (Justin Timberlake), a couple with folk ambitions of their own. At the Gaslight, they sing a rendition of "500 Miles" so beautiful it made me cry. What a wonderful, sad old song. The film's music, which was produced by T-Bone Burnett, is first rate. Mulligan is mournful and anxious as Jean, and Timberlake again proves a marvelously versatile entertainer.
A key scene takes place at a Columbia recording studio, where Llewyn and Jim cut a novelty song about the space program called "Please Mr. Kennedy." I'm fascinated by what a Columbia session must have looked like in 1961. The young folkies are joined by older studio musicians who wear ties and look bored as they play their instruments. Llewyn is glad to have the job, but he's revolted by the material. In Llewyn's world, selling out is an unforgivable sin.
In another important sequence, Llewyn travels to Chicago with a sharp-tongued jazz musician, played by Coen favorite John Goodman in a brief, astonishing performance. Goodman's character puts a curse on Llewyn, and what ensues perhaps isn't quite supernatural, but the film has some freaky stuff happening around the edges.
Inside Llewyn Davis is a memorable period film about an important time and place. More than that, it's a devastating portrait of someone who could be from any time and place. Llewyn is passionate about his art, but he also is angry and impulsive. He keeps making terrible choices. It's not just troubled artists who do that.