Bridging the Folk Generation Gap
With an all-star cast and exceptional reviews following its Cannes Film Festival premiere, Inside Llewyn Davis is destined to make a considerable dent at the box office during its wider release this December. The film follows the story of fictional young folk performer Llewyn Davis, played by Oscar Isaac, while he’s traveling through New York during the 1961 Greenwich Village folk revival. The film’s directors, the Coen Brothers, spared no expense in providing a high-profile soundtrack. Among the film’s actors who contribute vocals to the mostly original soundtrack are Justin Timberlake, Carey Mulligan, Stark Sands and lead Oscar Isaac, in addition to guest contributions on tracks by Marcus Mumford of Mumford and Sons and Chris Eldridge of Punch Brothers. The film also features an unreleased studio version of “Farewell” by Bob Dylan and “Green Green Rocky Road” by the great Dave Van Ronk (AKA the Mayor of MacDougal Street), whose memoir served as a historical source and inspiration for the film. The soundtrack also marks the fourth collaboration between the Coen Brothers and producer T-Bone Burnett, whose previous collaboration on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack earned a Grammy for Album of the Year in 2002 and is certified platinum eight times.
Regardless of its roster, the music of Inside Llewyn Davis stands as both an excellent soundtrack and a quality folk album. Most of the soundtrack features Isaac performing older folk songs made popular by folk artists of the revival (Van Ronk, Tom Paxton) such as “Green Green Rocky Road,” “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” and “Dink’s Song,” but in a manner reminiscent of newer folk outfits rather than in the style of the genre’s revivalists. While Isaac’s tracks feature only guitar and voice, his vocals disregard the folky, more American qualities of Van Ronk and Dylan in favor of a voice more appealing to the current generation of folk rock and indie folk listeners. While appreciators of older folk might be horrified at the idea of actors appropriating songs by untouchably classic artists for commercial appeal, this is clearly not the case on Llewyn Davis. If anything, actors Isaac, Timberlake and Mulligan should be lauded for their efforts to retain elements of classic folk while making their performances have a distinct, modern sound. In addition, the collaboration between Mumford and Isaac on the soundtrack’s version of “Fair Thee Well” deserves praise for both its instrumentation and strong vocals that blend harmoniously, rather than standing as separate performances on the same track.
The soundtrack’s last two songs, “Farewell” and the original “Green Green Rocky Road,” fit well with the twelve original tracks, distanced by the fifty years that proceed them, while serving as more traditional, mellow closers to what is by folk’s standards an energetic album. The sentimentality of these two tracks’ placement as closers also shows respect for the artists and styles upon which the film is based, strengthening their legacy while providing a meaningful finish to both the soundtrack and film. Overall, the soundtrack for Inside Llewyn Davis can stand alone as a modern folk album that brings much-needed attention to the genre’s revival for listeners both old and new forms of a quintessential American art form, and it deserves praise for achieving such a lofty goal.