Coen Brothers Take on 60s Greenwich Village Folk Scene

The public got the first glimpse of the new Coen Brothers movie Inside Llyewn Davis, set in the early 60s Greenwich Village folk scene. The trailer premiered at the Sundance festival amid curiosity of how the somewhat quaint setting of the bucolic early sixties will rise to the level of the grittiness of films like Fargo and Blood Simple, or the hilarity of films like Raising Arizona.

As a fan of the films of Joel and Ethan Coen, as well as of the early 60s folk revival era, and as a devotee of the music and the persona of Dave Van Ronk, I’ve been hotly anticipating this film since it was announced a few years ago. The film is loosely based on Van Ronk’s autobiography The Mayor of MacDougal Street — and with the arrival of the trailer, we realize already how loosely. The persona portrayed on screen by actor Oscar Isaac seems far too much of a sad sack (and apparently – from dialogue in the trailer —  an asshole) to be associated with Van Ronk, who has been universally described as a warm, sweet person, who went out of his way to mentor and nurture younger musicians, including Janis Ian, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan. This was in the crucial period when original songwriting and honest, non-commercially motivated songs in the Woody Guthrie tradition was unknown.

The Coen Brothers ‘loosely’ portray 60s Greenwich Village Folk Scene icon Dave Van Ronk in the first trailer for their new movie Inside Llyewn Davis

While many came to Manhattan from all over the world to “make it”, DVR (as fans refer to him,) merely journeyed from his native Brooklyn to Greenwich Village, looking for a different perspective on life. He rarely ever left again, except to ship out with the Merchant Marines, or later, to tour the world as a performer. His ubiquity in the early folk clubs in the neighborhood earned him the nickname “Mayor of MacDougal Street”, and the posthumous naming of the street in his honor.

The significance of the era when “hipster folkies” first roamed the earth is evoked in the beginning of Martin Scorcese‘s documentary on Bob Dylan, No Direction Home. In the 50s in America there was so little meaningful culture or free thought, that conformism was poised to wipeout the national identity that had been embodied in artists such as Walt Whitman, Orson Wells and others. The Beats and the Jazz underground had their own worlds, but the bursting forth of college-age middle-class kids into bearded, guitar-toting followers of Pete Seeger was a jolt to the psyche of a nation.

Being disappointed in artistic choices the Coen’s may have made in translating their story onto the screen is beside the point — it remains to be seen if the movie works, or if it rises to the heights we’re accustomed to from their films. But, for those who love Dave, and long to see him finally gain the recognition he’s never truly received, it will be hard to see this “Lewelyn Davis” character become the image of Van Ronk, who, in reality, was a big, charismatic and confident bear of a man, who lavished bon-homie, philosophy and culture on his friends, and struck an imposing figure on-stage. In fact, much was made in the early years of the former Merchant Marine’s resemblance to a “roustabout” or “roughneck”, a salt of the earth workingman, which lent believability, as Van Ronk became one of the first white performers to take on the unvarnished sounds of the folk-blues. This seems about as far from the timid, unsure demeanor of the “folksinger” seen onscreen in the trailer, toting a cat around with him — one of probably many fictional devices the movie will use. If anything, some scenes seem to refer, visually and in content to the early days of Bob Dylan in NYC, a very different story in feel than Van Ronk’s. And while Isaac has the singing voice to take on the role, a video circulating on the web displays a distinct lack of guitar chops that I cringe to see associated with DVR.

Filmically, the picture looks gorgeous. I love the look and feel of the city streets the Coen brothers transformed to their 60s details. Automobiles, shop signs, clothes, all seem perfect. But while many bio-pics go to great lengths to attempt visual accuracy — Jack Nicholson wearing a forehead prosthetic in Nixon, and Johnny Depp in Hunter S. Thompson drag, but here there’s little to no resemblance on the part of the actors to their historic counterparts, physically or in comportment. As seen in the trailer, the famous meeting between DVR and Albert Grossman, who eventually became his, and Dylan’s  manager, has none of the electricity I imagine was there, none of Grossman’s nervous energy or of DVR’s aggressiveness. The momentous trip to find Grossman, which is an important piece of The Mayor of MacDougal Street obviously plays a role in the film, and we get a peek at what must be a bit part played by John Goodman. Again, I wonder if this film will give Goodman the opportunity to rise to the level of sheer awesomeness he hit as “Cyclops” in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, or the insane awesomeness of his Big Lebowski character.

The Coen Brothers love America in all it’s deformity and power. They did good by 1930s Americana in O Brother. But, as in many of their films, they achieve their effect through the use of fantastical elements and the blurring of the line between fantasy and reality. From the trailer alone, this film seems uncharacteristically rooted in the actual world. It will be interesting to see how it plays out.

Hopefully with Inside Llyewn Davis they’ll do right by the essence of the Greenwich Village Folk Revival, and Dave Van Ronk.

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