The Coen brothers’ latest film chronicles the artistic and personal struggle of folk singer Llewyn Davis in early 1960’s Greenwich Village. But I think it is far more important than that.
The film, loosely based on Dave Van Ronk’s memoirs, details seemingly random events that could add up to the most significant week in the vagabond musician’s life.
In one of the more criminal acts of the Academy — that horde that hands out all those golden men next month — Oscar Issac’s career-making performance was denied acclaim, as was the Coen brothers’ script. It’s one of those delightfully “Coen” films, wrought with feline symbolism and cameos by John Goodman and Garrett Hedlund. The soundtrack, produced by genius T Bone Burnett, was mostly recorded live and includes covers by Justin Timberlake, Marcus Mumford, and Oscar Issac.
It’s a remarkable work, one that I think transcends audience demographics; moreover, I feel it is an significant piece for artists who, at times, live this same life, this same battle. Listed below are a few axioms every artist should take away from the Inside Llewyn Davis and incorporate into their work.
1. Don’t bite the hand that fed you
Llewyn found early success with the song “Fare The Well” as a duo with his friend and partner Mike. Unfortunately, Mike threw himself off of a bridge before the two could record a follow-up album. Davis finds himself running from the song for the whole film, at one point yelling at a friend for singing Mike’s part in the tune. Anyone with a shred of success has a “Who Let the Dogs Out,” and that is what your fans show up to see. Instead of running from that which allows you an audience, you should embrace it and move on. You cannot run from the past, it can only make you better. Improve on your previous work, but if you refuse to play “Mr. Jones” no one will want to hear “A Long December.”
2. Listen to criticism
After discovering a colleague — whom he believes to be his artistic inferior — has signed a deal with a famous Chicago promoter, Llewyn heads to Illinois to play the man what he touts as his best work. The manager likes the song, but frankly, does not like Davis. He suggests Llewyn join a group and harmonize with others. The problem is, he does not play well with others, literally or figuratively. He wants to leave Mike behind, escape his past. There is a reason people in power judge: they have experience. They know the business. If you cannot take criticism, you won’t last a minute in the real world. Art – whether music, film, or photography – requires an audience, a connection. Do not avoid the dance. Embrace it. Listen to what others have to say. Absorb it. BUT:
3. Ignore criticism
Just because ONE PERSON does not feel you have “it,” or because ONE VOICE cannot harmonize with yours, do not scrap your work altogether. If you truly believe what you have is good – whatever that means – keep searching for the audience that agrees. Llewyn ultimately decides not to be Peter to Paul and Mary, but he does perform “Fare The Well” solo to an agreeable crowd.
4. Do not disparage other artists
At a particularly low point in his week, Llewyn shouts profane and demeaning insults to a singer who graces the stage of his local dive. He does ultimately pay for it in a surprisingly brutal way, and the message is clear: support other artists. Do not be the person that kills a fellow dreamer’s hopes. Sometimes, you have to give a critique, but make sure it comes from an honest place. Provide feedback, not vitriol.
5. Give back
Van Ronk was famously a friend to Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and other artists who graced the streets of Greenwich singing about the plight of American folk. Dave was a shining light, always willing to listen to another’s work and do what he could to promote new sounds. We are blessed with the gifts we have not only to produce our own work and add it to the myriad of vibrations in the collective, but we are to share what we know so we might impact and change the face of the composition as a whole.
6. Don’t give up
By the end of the film, Lleywn has no winter coat, is missing a shoe, and is about to take another tour in the Merchant Marines. He still takes a gig, however, and performs his most profound sound yet. He is a man changed, embracing the work of old with a new voice, a new perspective. Davis may be down, but he is not out. You get the sense that he will battle on. It’s one of those moments when an artist is made. All of the strife and obstacles have culminated in a moment of pure understanding. The labor has come together to make something better, something real. You are the mistakes and trials of your life. Put it on the page or in the film or in the tune you sing, and the world will listen.
7. “It’s the magic of risking everything for a dream that nobody sees but you.”
Okay…that’s Million Dollar Baby, but it still applies. It is possible that others will not share your vision you have for your life. It’s not up to them to make it happen. It’s up to You. No one will believe in you if you cannot believe in yourself.
It is quite possible that I read way too much into this movie. I do that. The best films are the ones that impact your life in some profound way. When you truly connect with the characters on screen, when they come to life. And maybe you are not an artist, just a lover of cinema. If that is the case, I’m fairly sure that you can apply these seven principles to any profession. Or you can just get lost in the moments and music and sweet sound that is Inside Llewyn Davis.
Life Lessons: A+