It’s commonplace to film the rise of a big music star. But the Bob Dylans and Loretta Lynns are needles in a haystack. What about all the musicians who never quite make it? The ones who struggle to have their music heard, play at lowly dive bars and work odd jobs to make rent without ever filling up that stadium. Of the millions of real-life stories, only one film comes to mind, 2012’s “Searching for Sugar Man.” But even American musician Sixto Rodriguez found fame, albeit some 30 years after releasing his final album.
In “Inside Llewyn Davis,” we meet Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) in a dive bar called the Gaslight in Greenwich Village. He is sultry looking, with his dark hair falling over his eyes; he strums his guitar and sings, “I wouldn’t mind the hanging, except for laying in the grave so long.” This is a perfect introduction to Llewyn Davis, who wants so badly to be taken seriously as a musician but already has one foot in the ground.
He is homeless and spends his days figuring out where to crash for the night. He stays in the home of the Gorfeins, a sympathetic college professor, his wife and tabby cat. The couple knew him from the time he was the second half of a pop duo, before his other half jumped off the George Washington Bridge. He also hangs out on the couch of Jim and Jean (Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan) a folk duo finding more success than Llewyn. Jim and Llewyn are friends despite Llewyn having secretly slept with and impregnated Jean.
By chance, he meets a fellow singer named Al Cody (Adam Driver), who sends him on a gig to Chicago with Roland Turner (John Goodman). Turner is Davis’ future: old and disgruntled and stumbling from one little gig to another. Goodman give a phenomenal performance as the crotchety old jazz musician.
The Coen brothers poke a bit of fun at the folk scene of the 1960s Greenwich Village, and at Llewyn himself. But the mood is generally light and playful and Llewyn, although with a slew of problems and character flaws, is a richly colored protagonist. The music and setting are excellently captured and turn the Coens’ film into something that rings truer than any biopic ever could.