Inside Llewyn Davis
The visionary chroniclers of eccentric Americana Joel and Ethan Coen present one of their greatest creations in Llewyn Davis, a singer barely eking out a living on the peripheries of the flourishing Greenwich Village folk scene of the early sixties. As embodied by Oscar Isaac in a revelatory performance, Llewyn (loosely modeled on the Village folk legend Dave Van Ronk) is extraordinarily talented but also irascible, rude, and self-defeating. His circular odyssey through an unforgiving winter cityscape, evocatively captured by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, is realized with poignant humor and the occasional surreal touch. Featuring a folk soundtrack curated by T Bone Burnett, Inside Llewyn Davis reminds us that in the Coens’ world, history isn’t necessarily written by the winners.
Rather unexpectedly, The Criterion Collection presents Joel and Ethan Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis on Blu-ray in a new special edition. Presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1, the new 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation is delivered on a dual-layer disc and comes from a 4K scan of the original negative.
Criterion hinted at this film in the 2015 New Year’s clue and it was certainly a surprise since it was a.) a newer film, b.) a CBS Films title, whom Criterion has never licensed from before, and c.) it already had a decent Blu-ray edition (though yes, it lacked special features). At first I must admit I wondered if this release was a waste of resources, but that that tone changed once I got through the whole disc.
When it comes to the presentation, though, I can’t say there is any sort of upgrade: in comparison to the Sony disc there isn’t much of a difference if any. The film has a very distinct look with colours toned to duller grays and blues with flashes of autumn colours; brownish-oranges are just about as bright as colours get in this film. Because of the sort-of-hazy, soft glow look to most of the film the image lacks a certain crispness we’ve grown to expect now on the format, though that is the film’s intended look. Yet, despite this handicap, I still found detail levels to be rather strong, with knit patterns in sweaters looking distinct and clear, depth looks great, and long shots still manage to deliver some of the fine details of the meticulously built sets. Black levels are very rich and I didn’t find crushing to be an issue, and shadow delineation is excellent.
There were concerns that Criterion might bomb the actual encode because of inconsistencies over the last couple of years but over the past couple of months (forgetting The Emigrants and The New Land, though I blame their minor problems more on an older master) I think they’ve been hitting their presentations out of the park at least in terms of encoding. Inside Llewyn Davis is no different and we get a very clean, very natural looking image and I didn’t detect any issues with noise or compression while watching the film. The digital presentation, in the end, is really about as good as one could hope for. Also, there isn’t a hint of damage or wear to be seen throughout, but that’s basically expected since the film is really so new.
In the end I still can’t say it looks any different from the Sony. That’s not a bad thing in anyway, but, of course, this also offers no reason to upgrade from the old Sony disc if you already have it. Rest assured, though, Criterion has done a great job and the presentation still looks great.
Similar to the Sony disc Criterion provides a lossless DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround track, and like with the picture I didn’t detect any real difference. Still, it’s an incredibly effective track, rich and pure in its delivery. Dialogue, ambient noise, sound effects, and the like all sound wonderful, with terrific depth and clarity, but where the track truly shines, of course, is in its music sequences. These moments are incredibly dynamic with superb range and fidelity, nicely filling out the environment. Volume levels are nicely mixed and balanced so nothing feels drowned out. The surrounds get a lot to do, even when dealing with background effects, but they shine most during these musical moments. Bass is also effective in the lower channel but also balanced well so that it’s never overbearing. An absolutely beautifully mixed presentation.
The picture looks great and the audio is fantastic, certainly two good reasons to pick up this disc, though admittedly these aspects are really no different from Sony’s previous Blu-ray edition. Where this release clearly obliterates that disc is in the supplements department, and that’s easy to conclude just by looking at the listing of special features either on the back of the case, on this page, or on Criterion’s site.
But what really surprised me is just how rich the content is on here. When I go through the supplements Criterion puts together for a newer title I usually restrain my expectations simply because the title is so new it hasn’t benefitted from years and years of study and analysis. Sure, the film may have been well praised, had done well theatrically, or already have a built in “fanbase” so to say, yet there’s still very little content written or produced about it. And yes, every once in a while there’s some strong material (Matt Zoller Seitz’s video essay on Darjeeling Limited comes immediately to mind) but, again, I usually don’t expect more than standard making-of stuff. Because my expectations are already low going into this it’s not unfair to say that anything that manages to surpass these expectations by a decent margin may cause me to overreact, but even taking that into consideration I still have to say this: this is easily one of the best, most carefully thought out special editions I’ve seen from Criterion in an incredibly long time, maybe since their release of Close-Up. And I’m not just talking about for a newer film, but overall. A lot of thought has gone into this release and it shows in just about every aspect of the special features and any ideas on my part that this release would be a waste of resources were immediately shamed and put to rest. This edition is, simply put, terrific.
And it all begins with a great audio commentary. Usually a newer title sports a commentary featuring members of the cast and/or crew, maybe even just the director, but Criterion goes the third-party route offering a more scholarly track featuring authors Robert Christgau, David Hajdu, and Sean Wilentz. The three, all very fond of the film, sit and chat about the film, the folk scene of the sixties, many of the artists at the time, and how the Coen brothers successfully recreate that period here. It’s an incredibly rich track with non-stop information, the participants giving a very thorough history of folk music, its origins, its influences, and how the scene became more prominent in New York. They talk about the specific time period represented in the film (best described as “pre-Dylan”) and the impact the music had on its surroundings and vice-versa. As songs come up throughout the film the members talk about the song and give as thorough a backstory on it as they can, except for the film’s only original piece, the so-bad-its-incredible-and-catchy “Please Mr. Kennedy,” but even then they can state its influences. All characters appear to be based on or inspired by actual people, Davis himself based loosely on Dave Von Ronk (one states Oscar Isaac sounds too good to be Von Ronk), and the participants talk about these people, even if the basis is looser than loose. They praise the details, even if they’re not entirely authentic (though they point out that even if the film is not 100% authentic it still feels authentic to them and they lived through it), and share their own personal stories from the period.
My knowledge on folk is non-existent. I like folk music but know next to nothing about its history and this track is really a crash course on the subject. It’s a fantastic audio commentary, definitely worth the listen.
Carried over from the Sony disc is the 43-minute documentary Inside “Inside Llewyn David”, produced by David Prior. There’s information about the production itself, in terms of writing, casting, and filming, but surprisingly little. We learn a bit about the cinematography (the Coens’ usual go-to, Roger Deakins, was busy on Skyfall, so the Coens ended up going with Bruno Delbonnel this time around), Isaac’s ability at singing and playing guitar (T Bone Burnett says the Coens were really lucky in getting him), and what it was like working with a cat (difficult because, you know, cats). Most of the documentary focuses on the music and we get plenty of footage of rehearsals, various artists just jamming, and the development in the arrangements, all of which actually proves to be quite a bit of fun. There’s a fairly laid back feel to the whole feature but I still enjoyed it and I’m happy Criterion carried it over.
One of the real gems to this release, though, is the next exclusive feature: The First Hundred Feet, the Last Hundred Feet, a conversation between filmmakers Guillermo del Toro and Joel and Ethan Coen. The concept of the feature is pretty good, based on a statement by François Truffaut where the first hundred feet of a film contains what a filmmaker (or in this case, filmmakers) will become, and taking that they talk about the Coen touch that was firmly set in place with Blood Simple and how that has carried through to what was at the time their latest film, Inside Llewyn David (with some details about their other work, of course, including their then unfinished Hail, Caesar!). They first get into the films that influenced them out of the way, which includes The Third Man, The Conformist, and Dr. Strangelove, but the biggest surprise is that while making Blood Simple George Miller’s The Road Warrior was actually on both of their minds. From here they then focus a lot on Blood Simple, from its opening voice-over (the first hundred feet), its characters, and the visuals of the film, with the Coens’ style pretty much firmly set with the one shot where the camera literally jumps over a passed out drunk on the bar counter. The three talk about the stories that attract them and the common elements and themes that can be found in most if not all of the Coens’ work. The brothers even talk about why they revisited Blood Simple and recut it (they saw it at a screening and were rather horrified by how rough it was). It’s an absolutely wonderful conversation, with an obvious respect and admiration between all participants, the two brothers even talking about what they admire about del Toro’s work. Great feature and I really hope Criterion can produce more features like this.
Another gem to the release is Another Day, Another Time, a feature showcasing a September, 2013 concert inspired by the film, performed at New York’s town hall. The concert presented performances by the Avett Brothers, Lake Street Dive, Rhiannon Giddens, Marcus Mumford, the Punch Brothers, Patti Smith, Willie Watson, Gillian Welch, and Jack White, along with Joan Baez and Oscar Isaac (who admits to be very nervous about performing in front of a large audience). Made up mostly of songs from the film, and a handful of the performers’ own songs, it’s a very fun feature, with interviews mixed in with participants talking about folk music either from a general stance or from a personal prospective. And though it’s not presented in lossless surround (it’s only presented in Dolby Digital 5.1) it still sounds wonderful.
The Way of Folk is an interestingly put together feature. The 16-minute conversation between the Coens and musician/producer T Bone Burnett has the three simply talk about folk music, its history, and the process of picking the songs that would appear in the film. Every song was carefully picked for each moment in the film, making sure it would strike the right chord and carry both the correct emotional and historical heft for whatever sequence it was in. Criterion even gets a little stylish with the feature, having artist Drew Christie illustrate/animate some of the conversation. Another enlightening and enjoyable feature.
Criterion next includes an interview with Elijah Wald under the feature Before the Flood. Wald collaborated with Dave Von Ronk on his memoir The Mayor of MacDougal Street and here Wald talks a little bit about the artist but spends most of his time talking about the time period the film takes place in, giving a very detailed history of how the folk scene built up, and the period that follows when folk music took off. He gets heavy in the details at times, even explaining the economy and how people were able to making a living without actually making a living. It’s another thoughtful addition, offering more context and showing the level of detail that went into the film in terms of both story and production design. It runs 19-minutes.
Criterion also throws in the 1961 short film Sunday, directed by Dan Drasin. The film is mentioned in the Coens/Burnett interview, with one of the images from the film influencing the filmmakers to a certain extent, so that more or less explains its inclusion here. The film documents a demonstration in New York’s Washington Square park against an order by (I assume) the parks commission that barred musicians from congregating there for a weekly “songfest.” This demonstration was then rather violently broken up by the police who start dragging away demonstrators and roughing them up quite a bit (though not the worst case of police-overreach ever documented it’s still an obvious overreaction on their part). Stylistically it’s pretty simple, serving more to just capture the moment. Still a surprising and thoughtful inclusion that’s worth viewing. It runs 17-minutes and looks to be an upscale of a standard-definition transfer.
Finally the disc ends with six theatrical trailers, while the included poster insert (which has nice artwork on one side depicting Llewyn performing at the Gaslight) features an essay by Kent Jones on the film and the Coens’ work, nicely rounding out the features.
In the end it’s a fairly loaded special edition and I was impressed with the content and effort that went into the release. It not only offers a wonderful look at the film and its music, but it nicely contextualizes the film by offering a large amount of detail about the folk scene in the sixties while also providing a wonderful overview of the Coen brothers’ career and some decent scholarly analysis of the film. It’s a well thought-out release and one of Criterion’s best put together packages in recent memory.
The presentation is superb, though honestly doesn’t look or sound better than Sony’s original disc (it also doesn’t look or sound worse) so on that basis the release doesn’t really have any weight. But fans of the film and/or of the Coen brothers’ really need to get this release based on the significant special features, which deliver on both quantity and quality. It’s a great release and I’d say one of Criterion’s best put together and most thought out releases in a long while.