Inside Llewyn Davis: A folk soundtrack for 2014

Llewyn Davis, played by Oscar Isaacs, is a somewhat unlikable but talented musician, stuck in a never-ending loop of failure and an inability to really crack the big time. (AFP)

Llewyn Davis, played by Oscar Isaacs, is a somewhat unlikable but talented musician, stuck in a never-ending loop of failure and an inability to really crack the big time. (AFP)

The Coen brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis is loosely based on the memoirs of folk singer Dave Van Ronk, who was influential among the plethora of folk musicians that circulated the Greenwich scene during the 60s. It is said that Bob Dylan was inspired by Van Ronk's music.

The character of Llewyn Davis, a somewhat unlikable but talented musician, seems stuck in a never-ending loop of failure and an inability to really crack the big time. The film investigates the sheer luck that leads to fame and the thin line between being a threadbare, broke musician and a superstar.

The old-timey roots soundtrack, created by O Brother, Where Art Thou?'s T-bone Burnett, draws heavily on the folk and blues sound that was big in New York at the time. All recordings are modern save one unreleased Bob Dylan track, Farewell.

An excellent soundtrack is key to a film that's main character is music, and though some songs do not work well as stand-alones, overall it is a perfectly-pitched accompaniment to a film that is understated, sparse, lonely and very beautiful.

Oscar Isaacs was born to play the role of dog-out-of-luck Davis. Hang on, Oh Hang Me, is a heart-wrenching opening, displaying the melancholic character of Davis with sardonic lyrics such as "hang me, oh hang me/ I'll be dead and gone/ wouldn't mind the hangin' / but the layin' in the grave so long".

A welcome upbeat is the quirky Please Mr Kennedy, with the surprise addition of Justin Timberlake. Actress Carey Mulligan adds pleasant sweetness to the group harmony Five Hundred Miles. The Auld Triangle with Marcus Mumford and Timberlake is another stand-out song, and Van Ronk's heartfelt yet unsentimental Green Rocky Road caps the set. But it is Isaacs's final performance of The Death of Queen Jane that really breaks through to spine-tingling dimensions.

If you're not into Americana, blue-collar guitar-strumming, then by no means listen to this. As with The Everly Brothers, too much "moma take me home," "he was a gamblin' man" can get, well, too much.

Otherwise, the album is as they say, a hootin' good time. It could very well bring folk back into the popular stream and will most definitely pique renewed interest in Dylan and Van Ronk. Like Llewyn Davis on his oddball journey, it's the road-to-nowhere kind of music that takes you far, far away.

 
Grethe Koen

Grethe Koen

Grethe Koen has an Honours degree in political science and worked at an organisation for prisoners’ human rights before joining the Mail & Guardian online team as a sub-editor. When she’s not replacing commas with full-stops and taking out pesky html coding she likes writing about music, gender issues and whatever is trending on Twitter. Read more from Grethe Koen

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