MUSIC MOVIES & ME: INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS & Music as Intimacy

MUSIC MOVIES & ME: INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS & Music as Intimacy

This article is the fourth in a series by Sarah Jae Leiber exploring "music movies" and all the beauty and frustration that comes with them! Read last week's column here.


When I was in eighth grade, I got my heart super broken by someone whose name I can't even remember offhand. What I can remember is sitting in my bedroom and blasting "You Belong With Me," crying and shouting the lyrics and waiting to feel less hurt. It's a silly memory, but the feelings were real, and I think about them every single time I hear that song. Music makes you feel good, to be sure⁠-but there are moments where music hurts. There are songs I used to play on repeat that I can't listen to anymore because they're associated with a bad memory, or they're associated with something or someone I used to love. That moment, where music meets memory, is where we meet our protagonist in "Inside Llewyn Davis."

If "Inside Llewyn Davis" were a different movie, maybe creating music would save the leading man. Maybe it would make him feel better. Maybe coming back to his music would give him joy and help him navigate this mourning period.

"Inside Llewyn Davis" is about music, but it's mostly about grief, and about learning to manage things you love when they're psychologically attached to things that hurt. It's not about the warm-and-fuzzy feelings music can give you while you're making it; it's about deep bitterness taking the place of passion after the person who shared your passion is gone.

I love the Coen Brothers because they make beautiful movies about the worst days in people's lives. You root for their deeply flawed protagonists because you see something in them the world of the movie can't see, that the characters can't see in themselves. Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac in one of my favorite ever acting performances) is a very special talent; he has a golden voice and a beautiful face, and you feel every lyric that comes out of his mouth deep in your folk music-loving soul.

But we don't know the scope of his powers because we only meet Llewyn in the aftermath of Mike's death. We never meet Mike, but he's all over the movie. He's in every tortured note that comes out of Llewyn's mouth or his guitar; he's in every moment someone tells Llewyn he's nothing special on his own.

There's a moment where Llewyn's asked to play a song after having dinner at a friend's apartment. As he sings, the friend jumps in on harmony⁠-and Llewyn freaks out. How dare anybody try to take over Mike's part, to sing the harmony that once defined their partnership? How dare anybody presume to take his place?

For Llewyn, music is a means of communication, a common language. It's necessary, not extra-curricular. What used to be intelligible doesn't make sense anymore without Mike, who was the only person in his life who could read his communication. He didn't just lose the person he loved; he lost the marker of their intimacy. He lost the close harmonies he'd for a long time been associating with human closeness; when someone else tries to jump in, it feels inauthentic and wrong and unearned.

There's a point where Justin Timberlake asks Llewyn to sit in on a studio session, where the two of them and a bizarre, perfect Adam Driver record a parody song about the space program. This moment would be the spiritual heart and soul of some other movie: the song is ridiculous and SO much fun, a total ear worm that's meant to make people laugh. For Llewyn, it's grunt work. It's not special; it's barely real. He needs money, so he waives his right to royalties in favor of cash up front⁠-of course, we find out that "Please Mr. Kennedy" makes a ton of money and climbs the charts, and that Llewyn will see none of the benefits.

Everything that could go wrong goes wrong in this movie. The wild and impossible coalesce to mirror the futility of grief, the desperation of untreated clinical depression. "Inside Llewyn Davis" subverts what we know about music movies to paint a tortured man at his most tortured, a musician betrayed by music. Truth is only truth if you can share it with somebody; by yourself, you may as well be playing in a folk club right before Bob Dylan goes on.


"Inside Llewyn Davis" is available to RENT OR BUY on Amazon, YouTube, Vudu, and more from $2.99. Watch the trailer here:



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From This Author Sarah Jae Leiber