If you’re sentient and been to a multiplex, you’ve noticed a reliable movie trope happening: since Ray won Jamie Foxx an Oscar, every year has seen a smattering of biopics on musicians. Just this year saw films on Nina Simone, Miles Davis (which I actually loved), Hank Williams (which I hated), Chet Baker, and that time Elvis met Nixon. Next year promises a threatened Tupac biopic, a Def Jam records biopic, Morrissey, and Death Row Records biopic.
Now, some of these movies might be enjoyable. But odds are most of them will suck, and most of them will be an insult to you, the people that made them, and the artist whose life they’re based on. And more importantly, none of them will ever stack up to a biopic of a fictional folk singer in New York in the early ‘60s, in a Coen Brothers movie hardly anyone saw. I’m talking of course, about Inside Llewyn Davis, the 2013 film starring Oscar “Yeah, I’m in Star Wars and X-Men” Isaac in the title role. The film is far and away the best, and realest movie, about being a working musician ever made. It’s better than any biopic you’ve ever seen.
Of course, Llewyn Davis was not a real guy, so the film isn’t actually a biopic. However, the Coen Brothers acknowledged repeatedly before it came out that he was inspired by Dave Van Ronk, a zelig of the early ‘60s folk and blues revivals, a guy who knew Bob Dylan before he was that Bob Dylan, a guy who was pegged as the star of the New York folk scene till Dylan blew in from Minnesota. The Coens bought the rights to Van Ronk’s awesome autobiography--The Mayor of MacDougal Street--and turned it into Inside Llewyn Davis, a play on Inside Dave Van Ronk.
Inside Llewyn Davis follows Llewyn for a disastrous week as he bums around the folk clubs of New York in 1961. Llewyn is a folk singer who is set adrift after his singing partner kills himself--this happened a couple weeks before the events of the movie--and who is struggling to pay rent and get himself a winter coat off the royalties of the album he made with that partner, and his basket-passing gigs in cafes. He’s a lothario--every woman in this movie has a problem with Llewyn, and that problem is that he got them pregnant and he has no intention of dealing with any offspring--and he’s caught between wanting to make “authentic” art and go for the easy cash that was being tossed around when the folk boom was happening. We see Llewyn play on a novelty single--with Justin Timberlake and his future Star Wars cast mate Adam Driver--and take an upfront check because he needs fast money, not a trickle of royalties. We see him go on a metaphysical trip to Chicago to play for Bud Grossman, a Chicago club owner based on Bob Dylan’s manager, who tells him to his face he doesn’t see any money in Davis’ music. The movie hinges on Llewyn finding a lost cat that belongs to his rich patrons, who provide him a couch when he needs it. And then the whole thing folds back on itself at the end.
That there really isn’t a firm plot is part of the strengths of Inside, namely that there is no redemptive narrative arc in this for Llewyn. He’s a loser who’s born to lose. But the ultimate message of the movie is hidden in the scene before Llewyn takes his second ass kicking of the movie when the movie closes its oval. Llewyn is walking out of a club and sees Bob Dylan take the stage after him to play a newer, fresher version of the song Llewyn had just played. All of the struggles Llewyn faces through the entire movie are what he thinks makes him an artist and are central to the creation of great art. He’s true to nothing but himself; he burns every available bridge-like structure, he lashes out at everyone around him, he refuses to make the commercial money available to him, and he’s under the assumption that if continues to do so, the universe will acknowledge him for the talent he thinks he is. Inside Llewyn Davis doesn’t only puncture that idea that a lot of artists have--that if they grind away long enough they will be rewarded--it also says that no matter how good you are, and even if you might be the fest folk singer on a scene, there will always be a Bob Dylan.
In this way, Inside Llewyn Davis is the most realistic music movie ever made. For every Bob Dylan, there are literally hundreds of Llewyn Davises. In real life, not everyone gets to have the rags to riches story, not everyone overcomes their brother dying in a farm implement accident and their pill addiction. Not everyone has a tearful reunion with the kid they left behind later in life. Llewyn Davis is the reality of the music business and human existence; we watch him think about doing the right thing by Jean, we watch him nearly go check on the woman he got pregnant before letting her leave New York, we watch him try to leave music behind, but over and over, he makes the irrational choice. Llewyn Davis is the most real human being ever presented in a movie about music. The movie posits that without Llewyn Davis, there is no Bob Dylan, the cold hard reality of any member of a scene blowing up.
That central theme alone makes Inside Llewyn Davis essential viewing, but then you pile on an incredible soundtrack that accomplishes at least one miracle; one of the Mumfords is all over this, and it makes all these years of suffering through their stardom worth it. You also get John Goodman as a heroin addicted jazz singer spitting stories, and you get Justin Timberlake as a folkie, singing songs about astronauts. It’s a wonder this thing wasn’t the number one movie in America. Next time you’re thinking of throwing money at the Tupac estate to watch a Tupac biopic, watch this instead.
Andrew Winistorfer is Senior Director of Music and Editorial at Vinyl Me, Please, and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection and The Best Record Stores in the United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 30 VMP releases, co-produced multiple VMP Anthologies, and executive produced the VMP Anthologies The Story of Vanguard, The Story of Willie Nelson, Miles Davis: The Electric Years and The Story of Waylon Jennings. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.