Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis Draws from the Life of Greenwich Village Icon Dave Van Ronk

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.”

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Coen Broth­ers Make a TV Com­mer­cial — Ridi­cul­ing “Clean Coal”

Tui­leries: A Short, Slight­ly Twist­ed Film by Joel and Ethan Coen

World Cin­e­ma: Joel and Ethan Coen’s Play­ful Homage to Cin­e­ma His­to­ry

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.

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