It sucks to be a struggling artist, especially during a bitter New York winter, when your only place to crash is a friend's or stranger's couch. Those are the blues for Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), a folk singer struggling to make a living in Greenwich Village in 1961. Making matters worse, Llewyn may have just knocked up Jean (Carey Mulligan), the wife of his best friend and fellow folk singer Jim (Justin Timberlake). Whoops. Joel & Ethan Coen's latest pic is a musical odyssey in the tradition of O Brother, Where Art Thou? (complete with Homeric references), following Llewyn from club performances to a session gig to an important audition in Chicago.
Ready to get folked up? First, jam on these five facts:
Inside the Inspiration: Llewyn Davis may be a totally fictional character, but he's inspired by real-life musician Dave Van Ronk. The Coens' fascination with Van Ronk's memoir, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, led them to dig deeper into the thriving folk scene of the late 1950s and very early '60s, before Bob Dylan arrived. They created an original story about a folk singer in that world. The movie title is a reference to Van Ronk's 1963 album, Inside Dave Van Ronk.
Music to Your Ears: T Bone Burnett served as executive music producer for the film, marking his fourth collaboration with the Coens, and brought in British musician Marcus Mumford (of Mumford & Sons) to contribute and play on tracks. The film's songs were performed live while shooting, not on playback, because the Coens wanted the music and movie to have a documentary feel. The no-lip-synching approach made last year's Les Misérables less wonderful (uh, Russell Crowe's flat warbling), but here it works beautifully, capturing the singers' raw emotional intensity.
Dynamic Duet: Isaac was cast as Llewyn after impressing the filmmakers with his dramatic readings and musical skills. Burnett--who has produced for Elton John, Tony Bennett, Roy Orbison, and many others--says Isaac "can play and sing as well as anybody I work with." Mulligan, who reteams with Isaac after playing his wife in Drive, was more nervous about singing in the film. Even though she performed a solo in Shame, she was intimidated by working alongside such accomplished musicians as Isaac and Timberlake.
Tying the Coen Record: The Coens are known for repeatedly casting their favorite actors, including John Goodman, whose last movie with the brothers (O Brother, Where Art Thou?) was thirteen years ago. For his sixth Coen collaboration, Goodman plays a role written specifically for him — Roland Turner, a garrulous, drug-addicted jazz musician sporting a fancy suit, fedora, and Caesar haircut. Goodman is now in the elite group of six-time Coen actors, along with Steve Buscemi and Frances McDormand (who's married to Joel Coen).
Capturing the Past: Working with a modest budget, the filmmakers shot for six weeks in New York and relied mostly on existing locations. However, for critical scenes set at the Village's legendary but long-gone Gaslight Café, they converted a small abandoned warehouse into the subterranean "basket house" (performers were paid money that audience members put in a passed-around basket). Designers lowered the warehouse's ceiling, constructed arches, and decorated with period furniture and fixtures to recreate the dark, dingy club.