The new Coen Brothers' movie Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) is about a folk singer struggling for a successful music career in New York City in the 1960s. Bob Dylan also began his folk singing career in Greenwich Village in the early 1960s playing gigs at the Gaslight Cafe. Most of us have heard of Bob Dylan, but who is Llewyn Davis? Is Llewyn Davis Bob Dylan? Here we discuss the connections and similarities between the film Inside Llewyn Davis and Bob Dylan's biography to figure out what the story is.
It's easy to assume that the main character of the Coen Brothers' movie Inside Llewyn Davis is based on the life of a real folk singer from the 1960s. Several similarities between Llewyn Davis and lesser known sixties folk troubadour Dave Van Ronk have been brought to light by other movie critics, but the most compelling connections are between the lead character of the Coen Brothers' movie and Bob Dylan, the ultimate folk musician from the 1960s. There are definitely connections between the movie Inside Llewyn Davis and the biography of Bob Dylan, but does this really mean that the Coen Brothers intended for Llewyn Davis to be a portrayal of Bob Dylan?
One major similarity between the character of Llewyn Davis and Bob Dylan is in their "Welsh" names. When asked about his peculiar first name, Llewyn explains that his name is "Welsh," but this is met with skepticism: "You don't look Welsh." Like Llewyn, the name Dylan is also Welsh in origin. Robert Zimmerman purportedly assumed the stage name Bob Dylan as an homage to Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, but some critics speculate that Dylan, perhaps much like the fictional Llewyn Davis, may have changed his name to seem less "Jewish" or more WASP when starting his music career, especially given that the British Invasion and the Scottish folk singer Donovan were very popular at that time.
As it turns out, the music managers Llewyn Davis and Bob Dylan worked with have similar names, too. In Inside Llewyn Davis, Llewyn auditions for successful music manager Bud Grossman and plays a song for him. Bud Grossman passes on Llewyn Davis and chooses not to represent him. Bob Dylan, on the other hand, was represented by influential manager Albert Grossman for several successful years of his folk career.
When auditioning for Bud Grossman in the film, Llewyn Davis plays an old English folk song from his album Inside Llewyn Davis called "The Death of Queen Jane." Bob Dylan also recorded a folk rock song about Queen Jane on his 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited called "Queen Jane Approximately." Though "Queen Jane Approximately" is a Bob Dylan original, it is probably loosely based on and inspired by the traditional folk song Llewyn Davis plays in his audition for Grossman.
While movie watchers and music fans may have considered the connections between Llewyn Davis and Bob Dylan earlier in the film, in the last scene of Inside Llewyn Davis the Coen Brothers' write Bob Dylan right into the movie when Llewyn obliviously walks past newcomer Bob Dylan performing for the first time on stage at the Gaslight. Rather than stay and watch, Llewyn follows a mysterious man out into the alleyway and gets beaten up instead. The whole movie seems to darkly lead up to this point of Llewyn missing Bob Dylan perform, boding bleakly for the young man down on his luck.
Like all Coen Brothers' films, the deeper meaning of Inside Llewyn Davis is up for interpretation and analysis. Who is Llewyn Davis? Is he a portrayal of Bob Dylan, or is he rather a composite of all of the folksingers out there who were never lucky enough to be Bob Dylan?
Bob Dylan is the folksinger that Llewyn Davis could never be. Bob Dylan struggled in the beginning of his career but eventually got the contract with the successful music manager. While Llewyn Davis offered just another interpretation of the traditional folk song "The Death of Queen Jane," Bob Dylan creatively bridged the gap between folk music and rock and wrote an original new song based off of that old folk song. Bob Dylan went on to become a music legend, but the private struggles of anonymous folk singers like Llewyn Davis are largely or even wholly forgotten by music history.