The Coens on capturing the pre-Dylan folk scene of Inside Llewyn Davis
The new movie from Joel and Ethan Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis, is about a solipsistic struggling folk singer with very few redeeming qualities besides his musical talent. Brilliantly played by Oscar Isaac, who sang all his parts live, Llewyn travels between couches and gigs waiting for his break in the Greenwich Village folk scene of the 1960s.
The actual time frame isn’t set out as precisely in the film, but if you wanted to place the action of Llewyn Davis, it would be somewhere between the beginning of 1960, with the opening of Folk City, a famous folk music haunt, and Bob Dylan’s arrival one year later. Dylan’s presence would transform the quaint folk scene into a music and culture epicentre, but it’s that pre-Dylan period that the Coens wanted to explore more in depth.
It’s a “lost cultural moment in music history,” Ethan says on the phone from New York.
The film was also a chance for the Coens to work with executive music producer T Bone Burnett again, the man behind the bluegrass-heavy, Grammy Award-winning O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack, which in turn inspired a new generation of artists to pursue folk, including Mumford & Sons (fittingly, Marcus Mumford sings the voice of Llewyn’s deceased music partner in the film).
Below, I speak to Joel and Ethan about that pre-Dylan era of music and authenticity, as well as Oscar Isaac, Justin Timberlake and folk legend Dave Van Ronk, who inspired the title character.