It’s pretty common knowledge that the music industry’s failing. Since the rise of the internet, MP3 and peer-to-peer networks, record sales have slumped to disheartening lows. In 2000, N*SYNC (a member of which appears in Inside Llewyn Davis) sold just shy of ten million copies which made them the highest selling artist of that year; in 2008, Lil Wayne was the highest seller yet couldn’t even reach a third of that, which means he sold less than any artist who made the top 10 in 2000.
Bands such as Beach House and the Black Keys have stated in interviews that allowing adverts to use your song is no longer “selling out,” but rather an opportunity you have to grab if you want a new tour van. No more of Tom Waits’ refusal to license his songs to Pepsi; DIY is a dead man’s game.
This is why Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is so miserable. Throughout the Coen brothers’ excellent new film, he trudges from disappointment to disappointment, desperately trying to make it as a solo folk artist without surrendering any of his artistic integrity. No-one will have him save for his useless manager, and so he sits there sulking when other acts are in reception of rapturous acclaim. Perhaps his goals would be more attainable if he didn’t have to worry about whose couch he was able to spend the night on, or if he wasn’t shivering his way through the snows of a formidable winter.
It’s not that nobody tries to help him either. Jim (Justin Timberlake) features Llewyn on a recording session, but Llewyn sacrifices royalty payment by signing a contract for immediate payment, just so he can afford to pay for Jim’s girlfriend, Jean (Carey Mulligan), to have an abortion (it’s Llewyn’s baby). Others just don’t get it, or see no use in him for chasing after their own goals. Essentially, the film sums up modern times just as effectively as it sums up its setting of Greenwich Village, 1961.
And so against a backdrop of soft, muted colours and gorgeous cinematography, Llewyn is driven glumly through disasters that don’t even have the decency to be extravagant. Occasionally the situations and retorts he’s faced with are out-and-out hilarious, but the overarching feeling is one of weariness and melancholy. The soundtrack produced by T Bone Burnett anchors these feelings, and the movie loses nothing when it drifts into full focus on a particular performance.
That each song you hear in the film was recorded live should not go without notice, even if folk music isn’t your thing. The way to think of it is as a film-length version of Bob Dylan’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, including the album cover which is referenced many times throughout Llewyn Davis. Melancholy though that may sound, the sorest pain comes from Llewyn’s general attitude. Shaken by the suicide of his old singing parter as well as the catastrophes that face him from day to day, he’s a thoroughly cantankerous person who is simply not easy to get along with. He doesn’t inspire any joy in the people around him and instead prefers to wallow in his own moodiness.
Inside Llewyn Davis‘ narcissistic anti-hero is a timely reminder that change is only for those who can get off the ground, and that ghosts can linger forever. So in all honesty, this movie is a terrible method of escaping 2014’s depressing winter, but there’s tremendous worth in what it tells you about modern life and, whether it was intended or not, it stands as a premature memorial for the music industry as it continues to disintegrate.