If you care about the folk revival of the sixties, or about most anything that went on in Greenwich Village back then, Dave Van Ronk lived just the life you’ll want to learn about. Known as “the Mayor of MacDougal Street,” he not only became a neighborhood fixture but backed up his formidably large, eccentrically rumpled presence with such a set of acoustic guitar and vocal skills that no less a future superstar than Bob Dylan looked to him as a guru. (Even Joni Mitchell deemed Van Ronk’s interpretation of her “Both Sides Now” the finest ever recorded.) Only toward the end did this musically eclectic, technically proficient lover of jazz and blues get around to telling the stories of his life in folk; a memoir, put down on paper by guitarist-historian Elijah Wald, appeared three years after his death. Now, eight years after that, Van Ronk’s words, deeds, and songs have inspired Inside Llewyn Davis, the latest film from Joel and Ethan Coen, whose trailer you can watch above.
Given that the production officially optioned Van Ronk’s memoir, you might expect a thinly veiled biopic, but the Coen brothers had other ideas — as, to their fans’ delight, they usually do. The New York Times’ Michael Cieply describes memoirist Wald’s cautioning that “the world of Inside Llewyn Davis, having been devised by the Coens, is ‘less innocent’ than one inhabited by Van Ronk, Mr. Dylan, Paul Clayton, the Rev. Reverend Gary Davis, Joni Mitchell, Tom Paxton and the myriad other singers who are invoked in the film.” In making the movie as musical as possible without actually making it a musical, the Coens enlisted producer T Bone Burnett to recreate the convergence of “influences from Appalachia, the Deep South, the Far West [and] New England” that stoked the folk revival that attracted so many young New Yorkers. “It was that cultural disconnect” between those worlds, Cieply quotes Coen as saying, “that lured him and his brother — long fans of folk music — to look for the movie in all of it.”
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.