In the Coen brothers’ brilliant 2013 film, Inside Llewyn Davis, the acoustic guitar lugged all around New York City and Chicago by the protagonist who gives the film its name is almost a main character itself.
The guitar is a key indicator of the fortunes of Llewyn Davis, a struggling New York folksinger in the early ‘60s.
It may be at the house of his wealthy friends, the Gorfeins, or at the apartment of fellow folksingers Jim and Jean Berkley.
Most of the time though, it is in Davis’ hand, as he braves the brutal urban winter in search of some reward for the dedication he never fails to exhibit toward the craft of singing folk songs.
Davis is a bit of a traditionalist, eschewing the more novelty and popular aspects of early-‘60s folk music in favor of his own spare, aching renditions of the traditional songs that made up the repertoire of many a folk singer at the time. Oscar Isaac, in his Golden Globe-nominated performance as Davis, captures the full essence of each of the songs he lends his voice and acoustic playing to.
“Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” is the performance that opens the film. Coming from the perspective of a weary, downtrodden maverick, its devastatingly bleak lyrics immediately set the tone for the film. “Hang me, oh hang me/I’ll be dead and gone/I wouldn’t mind the hanging, but laying in the ground so long,” Isaac croons. With gentle picking and his mournful voice, Isaac paints a dark picture, illuminating the protagonist of the song as Llewyn Davis himself, a brave traveler who’s been everywhere, but is almost entirely resigned to failure.
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Issac’s impeccably beautiful duet with Marcus Mumford (Mumford & Sons) on another folk classic “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song)” doesn’t do much to lighten the mood. The duo’s soaring harmonies only serve to highlight the song’s melancholy lyrics. The two sing, “I remember one evening in the pouring rain/in my heart, was an aching pain,” illustrating the vast emptiness of the winter-time New York that Llewyn Davis finds himself stuck in.
He is unwilling to give up, but unable to achieve any sort of upward mobility, with this song, (sung in the film by Davis with his now deceased singing partner) illustrating the bleakness of his situation.
Isaac’s performance of “The Death of Queen Jane” is simply staggering. Aside from Isaac’s beautiful vocals, his guitar playing is equally impressive. As with the best folk music, the acoustic guitar tells as much of a story as the lyrics. The chords Isaac plays give immense weight to his words and to his character.
Even if you’re not a fan of Joel and Ethan Coen as filmmakers, Inside Llewyn Davis is worth seeing solely for its soundtrack. The performances are by an unlikely bunch (other than Mumford, there’s Isaac, Carey Mulligan, and Justin Timberlake of all people), but they are all spot on. Their interpretations of these classic songs add authenticity to the film’s cold, dark setting. As a cinematic showcase for great acoustic music in this era, it has almost no parallel.
Find out more at http://www.insidellewyndavis.com/home
Jackson Maxwell is a freshman at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is double majoring in history and journalism. He is an editorial assistant at the Massachusetts Daily Collegian and has his own music blog entitled "Broken Drums." You can follow him here at http://broken--drums.tumblr.com/ or themotorcade.tumblr.com.