The American poet Walt Whitman once wrote: “Battles are lost in the same spirit in which they are won”, and called for “vivas” for the “overcome heroes”.
That’s what the latest film by the Coen brothers, Inside Llewyn Davis, seeks to do. A failing folk singer is told early on that he’s “like King Midas’s idiot brother”: everything he touches “turns to shit”. He’s an “arsehole” – yet we warm to him, and will him to grasp the success that’s always just out of reach.
The story is based on the life of Dave Van Ronk, a 1960s folk singer who mentored Bob Dylan but never quite hit the big time. His signature song was a version of House of the Rising Sun, purloined by Dylan before Van Ronk could even record it. Ironically, that in turn was covered by The Animals, and Dylan was often accused of stealing their song.
The 1960s American folk revival is the perfect setting for a study of bold but doomed ambitions. Its songs are of adventures and boom-chasers, princes and paupers, great triumphs and bigger losses – Whitman’s vivas brought to the big screen.
Part of the appeal of this movie is its wonderful soundtrack. Music producer T Bone Burnett has a knack of choosing just the right music for any film, and he’s done it again here. The main tune, Dink’s Song, is a heartwrenching, gut-busting tune, albeit re-recorded for a modern audience (real folk music would have dispensed with the multiple solos and harmonies, but a modern audience must be constantly entertained throughout a three minute song).
The acting, too, is a joy. Oscar Isaacs excels as a worthy loser, Carey Mulligan shines as a tough yet sensitive singer, and Justin Timberlake is surprisingly good. In short, it is the most mournful, majestic movie I have seen in such a long time; and it’s funny, too. See this film – and celebrate those overcome heroes.