Coen Bros: Inside Llewyn Davis part 6
So who is Llewyn Davis? Where does he come from? Does he, like Dylan (and the Coens), come from the bleak, rugged land of the north Midwest, land of farms and iron? (SPOILER ALERT)
Nope, he comes from Queens. Which is where he goes now, to visit his sister. Does he love and miss his sister? Nope, he goes to her house to see if she has any money. Their parents’ house has apparently sold, and he’s hoping to get some of the money from that.
Llewyn looks down on his sister, whom, he feels, has “sold out,” joined the ranks of middle-class losers who live merely to “exist.” Llewyn’s father, now in a nursing home, is one of those “existers.” Now that Llewyn’s sister has sold their father’s house, Llewyn wants the money to fund his show business career, but at least he’s not merely “existing,” which for him would be a death sentence. This is a fairly typical attitude for Llewyn, he looks down on all the people he mooches from.
Llewyn’s sister has a gift for him: a box of his belongings from the old house (obviously, Llewyn has left dealing with the father completely to her). In the box are his merchant marine papers (which will become important later) and an acetate of a record Llewyn made when he was eight, “Shoals of Herring.” Llewyn tells his sister to put the box “out on the curb.” Like Dylan, and many of the NYC folk scene, he’s seeking to reinvent himself, shed himself of his middle-class background and become a mysterious, urban-bumpkin folk star.
Llewyn calls Mitch Gorfein to lie about the whereabouts of his cat, then hustles over to Columbia Records, where Jim, the boyfriend of the woman he may have impregnated, is having a session for a novelty song, performing, with a handful of other musicians, as “The John Glenn Singers.” Columbia is the belly of the beast for Llewyn, the heart of commercial recording. The halls of Columbia are as cold, stark and empty as a mausoleum, the dead opposite of the digs at the Gaslight. The song they’re there to record is called “Please Mr. Kennedy,” and it’s as close as Llewyn Davis comes to addressing current world events. But this novelty song isn’t about the Cold War, the nuclear shadow or civil rights. It’s a song about the most optimistic of Cold War issues, the space program. Llewyn is shocked to learn that fellow folkie Jim wrote this throwaway ditty; the mere fact of it, in Llewyn’s eyes, disqualifies Jim from any sense of “authenticity.”
Jim, of course, is merely filling a niche in the marketplace. There is money to be made in the music business and he’s figured out how to do that. Llewyn has not, although he certainly feels entitled to it. The recording of “Please Mr. Kennedy” is the moral fulcrum of Llewyn Davis: as the record producer stares down, gimlet-eyed, from his glass tower, Jim and his band of folk minstrels jump through their hoops to make a silly record. That’s the state of the music industry in the winter of 1961: the Beatles haven’t happened yet, and John Hammond hasn’t yet discovered Bob Dylan. Young musicians are performing monkeys, producing nonsense for cash, striving to get a foothold on a whirling merry-go-round. Llewyn gives the recording his all, but then rushes out of the session as though afraid he will contract a disease. He takes a flat session fee rather than garner royalties, and makes sure to get a date on one of the backup singer’s couch before the ink on the contract is dry.
(The scene stands in sharp contrast to its equal in O Brother Where Art Thou. In that movie, Ulysses and his band of misfits stumble into a tiny recording studio unannounced, record their old-timey number in nothing flat for a clearly delighted producer, and take off with their money, masters of their destiny. Llewyn is a hired hand for a brand-new novelty song, the studio is vast, the producer stares at his charges with dollar signs in his eyes and Llewyn, disgusted, signs over his rights to the recording.)
(Faithful reader Curt Holman notes in the comments that “Please Mr. Kennedy” is a burlesque of this song. Not only does this bring up relevant questions of authenticity, but it speaks to a common practice at the time of creating spoof versions (and “answer songs”) of popular numbers, and how those spoof versions sometimes would eclipse the originals. For instance, while many accused Elvis Presley of ripping off Big Mama Thornton with his recording of “Hound Dog,” in fact Elvis was not recording her version. Rather, Elvis’s recording is based on a “spoof version” by a Vegas act, Freddie Bell and the Bellboys. And, of course, with regards to authenticity and the practice of white singers becoming famous by imitating black singers, it’s important to remember that “Hound Dog” was written by Leiber and Stoller, two Jews from the Brill Building.)
Llewyn goes to see his manager Mel. Mel has gone to a funeral, which he apparently does a lot of, not because he needs to but because he enjoys them. In a morbid way, you could say that he’s built a career around it, making his label, Legacy Records, a lifelong funeral for American music. As long as he’s there, Mel’s secretary Ginny gives Llewyn a box of his remaindered albums, the record he recorded with his partner Mike. “What am I gonna do with it?” sighs Llewyn, but he takes it with him anyway. He heads over to the apartment of the backup singer Al Cody. Al dresses like a cowboy and has a box of remaindered records under his end table just like Llewyn’s — clearly, Al has been around the same block as Llewyn, just a beat before.