Inside Llewyn Davis, the latest film from brilliant cinematic brothers Joel and Ethan Coen, was not a box office success. It's now out on DVD and blu-ray, having been denied a cinema release throughout most of the country, and I think the reason for its relative failure lies firmly in its subject matter. Behind the wistful portrait of a fictitious 1961 Greenwich Village lies a story not of musical success but a film that examines exactly the opposite: why some people don't succeed.
The question is cleverly complicated for the audience by a couple of things. Firstly, as we see and hear from the very first scene - Oscar Isaac as Llewyn singing “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me”, the whole song not just a snippet – he's very good.
So, from the start, we know that Llewyn certainly has the musical chops to “make it” . He is not hampered by a lack of talent.
(An aside: the music in the film was recorded live, an unusual and demanding approach. The Coen brothers really hit gold with Isaac, an actor who is also a very impressive singer and guitarist. “Hang Me...” and the other songs he sings are from the repertoire of the late great Dave Van Ronk as are some of the incidents, though it should be stressed that this is in no way a film about Van Ronk.)
The second thing is that Llewyn is a bit of a prick. Some of his behaviour could be regarded as, er, not awfully nice. Prime among this is the fact that he's knocked up Carey Mulligan's folk-singing Jean and then, in need of money for an abortion, secretly asks to borrow it from her folk singing-husband Jim (Justin Timberlake). Which does seem a little iffy...
From an audience perspective, however, Llewyn's biggest flaw is simply that he's continually depressed. But who can blame him? His musical life is continually soul-destroying. Check out what happens the three times he sings songs for people (not on stage). Poor Llewyn...
Well, nothing really. Various reasons are amusingly meditated on, one being the idea of “authenticity”. Which is pretty relevant today. Gotta have authenticity. If you play the blues you damn well better come from a shotgun shack in the Mississippi. Or be poorer than dirt. Gotta be... authentically something.
Inside Llewyn Davis picks at this notion and several others. There's a lovely juxtaposition between Llewyn, who really is a merchant seaman, and a bunch of Irish singers who wear immaculately matching “authentic” fishermen's jerseys.
But Llewyn never makes it. And the film settles on no real reason apart from the most obvious one – timing.
The last scene, a repeat of the first but with added information after the intervening flashback, reveals the other performer sharing the stage with Llewyn that night. It is Bob Dylan. Signalled by an offhand line earlier in the film, we know this is the famous night the New York Times reviews his gig and starts his rise into the musical stratosphere.
And that was pretty much the end for the folk scene and all the potential Llewyns. “If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it's a folk song,” says Llewyn on stage. But Dylan made everyone else sound old while making people hanker for the new. And he was it.
(As a second aside, the film also raises an even trickier subject for musicians, or any artist really: when or whether you should give up if you aren't “making it”. The dilemma that faces Llewyn throughout the film is whether he should quit, give up the dream, and settle for – as he puts it – “just existing”. Which is a somewhat grandiose way of thinking, but he's young! It's something all of us ponder sometimes. Another joke in the film is that even Llewyn's efforts to quit are frustrated.)