Meet the folks: The Coen brothers’ musical odyssey continues, on stage and on film

To coincide with the release of "Inside Llewyn Davis", the Coen brothers held a glitzy tribute to American folk - where Marcus Mumford and Carey Mulligan were joined on stage by Joan Collins and Jack White.

You know you’re in for a certain kind of gig when the microphones are ranged upon an Ottoman carpet. A roadie in braces and a trilby with a foot-long beard that’s taken months of topiary scuttles across the stage at the Town Hall in New York, and John Goodman steps up to relate a brief history of American folk music. “Emerging from the primordial sludge,” he says, “the earliest human beings banged gourds, then they hollowed the gourds out and strung them with wire. And Pete Townshend came along and smashed the gourds, and Jimi Hendrix set them on fire . . .”

In the new Coen brothers film, Inside Llewyn Davis, Goodman plays the fictional jazz legend Rowland Turner, a creation that’s two parts Dr John and one part Doc Pomus with the Caesar haircut of the sax great Gerry Mulligan. Turner has nothing but contempt for the Greenwich Village folk scene in which the movie is set, its “cowboy chords” a moronic contrast to the cosmic possibilities of his 12-note scale.

Inside Llewyn Davis centres on an almost-forgotten period in the folk revival, before Peter, Paul and Mary, before Paul Simon and Bob Dylan – just –when the idea of faithfully reproducing old-time songs was starting to merge with the revolutionary notion of making them your own. Its hero is based (only loosely, if you believe the Coens) on Dave Van Ronk, otherwise known as the Mayor of MacDougal Street, a talented guitarist and singer credited with bringing the blues to Greenwich Village, whose Inside Dave Van Ronk was released in 1963. He’d been briefly considered for a folk-pop trio with Peter Yarrow but was deemed too idiosyncratic, and the part went to Paul Stookey instead (in the group that became Peter, Paul and Mary).

If O Brother, Where Art Thou? was the Coens’ musical odyssey, an American journey signposted by the country’s oldest songs, then this is a story of missed connections. Throughout the film, folk songs are performed in exquisite close-up (and, unusually for the movies, in full) but just as you’re experiencing the warm rush of a communal cinematic thrill, someone bursts the bubble – such as when a Texas soldier, Troy Nelson (played by Stark Sands), gives a spellbinding rendition of Tom Paxton’s “The Last Thing on My Mind” and our hero asks, “Does he have a higher function?”

In the early 1960s, American folk and country music was filled with Private Nelsons – pretty mockingbirds who’d ship back to Galveston for duty after a gig at the Gaslight and wait for a call from Capitol Records. Llewyn Davis is an angry young man – “I am not a performing monkey, I do this for a living” – but he wants fame and a record deal like anyone else. From the guys in Aran sweaters singing “The Auld Triangle” (read: the Clancy Brothers) to “sell-outs” such as Davis’s pal Jim Berkey (played by Justin Timberlake), whose novelty song “Please, Mr Kennedy” is a number-one hit in the making, the film is an encyclopaedic examination of the notion of “keeping it real”.

At an exclusive gig on Sixth Avenue attended by half the cast of Girls, where Marcus Mumford and Carey Mulligan perform along with Joan Baez and Jack White, the idea of authenticity seems particularly relevant.

There are 37 songs – three hours of “cowboy chords” – to celebrate the film and raise funds for the National Recording Preservation Foundation. The film’s music producer, T-Bone Burnett, who made bluegrass sexy again with his soundtracks to Cold Mountain, O Brother . . . and HBO’s Nashville, says Inside Llewyn Davis is more relevant now than it would have been 20 years ago: the internet has left musicians such as Llewyn with little chance of a paying career, and – though not literally stuck in a car in a snowstorm with an abusive jazzer, on the way to an audition where a man in a polo neck tells you he “can’t see any money it” – our young musicians are figuratively out on their arses.

The stage is thronged with two or three bands (the Punch Brothers, the Avett Brothers, components of Mumford & Sons), all chosen for their antique sensibilities, all wearing the 1930s-era regulation uniform of braces and shirt, and performing old songs such as “Five Hundred Miles” and Bob Nolan’s “Tumbling Tumbleweeds”. Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings sing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”; Willie Watson, from Rawlings’s band, looks like a younger Tom Waits or a featherweight Desperate Dan, with his simian eyes, his voice as strange as an old radio on a cover of Leadbelly’s “Midnight Special” (“I hear soldiers quit their dyin’ one and all”). Jack White, who sings Sweet Papa Stovepipe’s “Mama’s Angel Child”, is more a caricaturist than an imitator – his loving portraits of Americana always seem to come out more colourful and rubbery than the songs they’re based on.

There’s a strange Gaelic interlude that gets a standing ovation, and occasionally a very important-looking, old, blind blues musician is brought on stage and sits at the back tapping on a tambourine. Someone pays tribute to Florence Reece, the activist, singer and inspiration to Dylan who wrote “Which Side Are You On?” for the Harlan miners in 1931 – and there’s a version of the endlessly adaptable “This Land Is Your Land”, with a few new verses appropriate to the government shutdown that’s threatening to overtake Manhattan the week I’m there.

In general, any mention of unions is guaranteed to get a whoop from the crowd of New York celebrities. In the Coens’ film, the Upper West Side’s relationship with the Greenwich scene is explored in a carousel of well-meaning intellectuals, all of them wearing two-tone specs, for whom having a “folk music friend” is a dinner-party talking point. Carey Mulligan plays the angry singer/exgirlfriend Jean, who appears to be modelled physically on Dylan’s Suze Rotolo, with her black sweater and fringe. Rotolo was one of the reasons the young Dylan, infatuated, started writing protest songs in the first place – well, she and Joan Baez, who’s here tonight, singing about the great union organiser Joe Hill (“The copper bosses killed you, Joe,/They shot you, Joe . . .”).

Baez always seems so normal – she’s first at the after-show buffet, piling her plate – but it doesn’t half sound funny when she says her coolness rating has “gone up by 70 per cent” because she’s sharing a stage with Marcus Mumford. His accent has become rather stylised since he started spending more and more time in America – he says “rascals” and “fella”, like someone playing a cockney in an American film. Then again no one here cares, as they would do in England, whether it’s appropriate for a boy from Hammersmith (although he was born in California) to be singing about cornbread; the question is academic, when no one else here eats it, either.

Mumford performs Dylan’s “Farewell” alongside the new young star of the movie, Oscar Isaac, and for a split second you allow yourself to wonder whether Bob, too, might not have been slightly overbearing on stage the first time anyone saw him – with his strange, grating voice and hobo get-up, acting like he owned the show.

“I fucking hate folk music,” says Llewyn Davis, watching an old lady with a harp performing in reverential silence to an audience of chin-stroking beatniks. On the way to the gig tonight, I waited in the subway next to a busker with a topknot who gave us a rough, mountain-man version of “The House of the Rising Sun”, as his kaftan-wearing girlfriend swayed next to him, singing harmonies you couldn’t actually hear.

Folk music will always attract as much pretension as it does authenticity and that seems to be what the Coens are going for. Patti Smith steps forward for “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You”, announcing that “for the disenfranchised mavericks of 1963, Joan Baez was our humble, undisputed and fierce queen”. Is Smith the result of Baez’s labours or a creation from another time? She seems to know the dif ference. “My dear husband Fred [“Sonic” Smith] would’ve loved to see all these people on stage,” she says. “I don’t even know who they are but I’m glad to see them, too!”

“Inside Llewyn Davis” is released in January

Patti Smith (right) and Joan Baez share a mic on stage at the Coens' concert. Photograph: Rahav Segev.

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Austerity Pope

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Are we taking Woody Allen for granted?

In some ways, Allen is a prisoner of the independence from Hollywood he fought for so long to protect.

Do you know what a state Annie Hall was in when it first emerged from the editing room? Maybe you’ve heard that its original title was Anhedonia – referring to Alvy Singer’s inability to experience pleasure – but it wasn’t just a title. That was the film that Allen shot: a Fellini-esque stream of consciousness, honeycombed with flashbacks to Alvy’s Coney Island childhood, featuring a murder mystery, a Nazi interrogation dream, an elevator trip to hell and a basketball game between a team of philosophers and the New York Knicks.

“Terrible, completely unsalvageable,” said Allen’s co-writer, Marshall Brickman, of the film they saw as a rough cut in late 1976. Only one thing worked: the subplot involving Alvy’s romance with Annie Hall. “I didn’t sit down with Marshall Brickman and say, ‘We’re going to write a picture about a relationship,’” Allen later said. “I mean, the whole concept of the picture changed as we were cutting it.”

His reaction to the success of Annie Hall – his biggest hit at the box office at the time and the winner of four Academy Awards – was the same reaction he had to any of his films that went over too well with the public: he disparaged it, while quietly absorbing its lessons. Bits and pieces of Annie Hall showed up in his other films for the next two decades – Alvy’s Coney Island childhood resurfacing in Radio Days, the murder mystery in Manhattan Murder Mystery, the elevator trip to hell in Deconstructing Harry – while reshoots and rewrites became a staple of most of his pictures, granting him the freedom almost of a novelist working through successive drafts.

“It was remarkable what he did for me,” Diane Keaton later said of Allen’s ear for Annie’s Chippewa Falls language: self-conscious, neurotic, a little jejune in her attempts to sound smarter than she is, “flumping around, trying to find a sentence”. Annie Hall was a breech delivery, as indeed it had to be, as the first film of Allen’s that was almost entirely taken over by another performer, a voice other than his. As a kid growing up in Brooklyn, Allen studied the great magicians and in many ways his greatest achievement as a director has been to make himself disappear.

Introverts often grow up thinking that they are invisible – a fear, perhaps, but a strangely comforting one and something of a sustaining fantasy should they become famous. These days, Allen has the invisibility of ubiquity, noiselessly producing a film every year for critics to take a whack at: is it good Woody or bad Woody?

Allen is a figure occluded by the scandals and speculation of his private life, which still sends tabloid Geiger counters crackling, some two decades after his break with Mia Farrow. The headlines could almost be the pitch for a Woody Allen film, were it not that Allen has already made it. In Zelig, the chameleonic hero is, you may remember, “sued for bigamy, adultery, automobile accidents, plagiarism, household damages, negligence, property damages and performing unnecessary dental extractions”, before finding redemption in some Lindberghian derring-do – an accurate forecast, in a sense, of Allen’s return to making crowd-pleasers in the mid-1990s. Except that Zelig was released in 1983. On the rise and fall of Woody Allen, Allen, it seems, was there first.

His 46th film opens in cinemas on 11 September. In Irrational Man, Joaquin Phoenix plays Abe Lucas, a dishevelled, alcoholic philosophy professor who decides to pull himself out of his funk with a spot of murder, which has long replaced masturbation as the favoured activity of the Allen male. I’ll leave it to Allen’s old shrinks to tease out the connection between comedy and murder, spotted by Freud in Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious – why else do we talk of comedians “killing” it, or “slaying” their audience, if not for the release of hostility common to both? And I’ll leave it to the critics to decide the relation of Irrational Man to the earlier Match Point and Crimes and Misdemeanors.

The problem with late Allen is not that the films are bad necessarily but that they are sketchy: spindly and dashed off, the result of a too-easy passage from page to screen. Allen’s has to be the shortest in show business. A film a year, as regular as clockwork, with zero studio interference. He is the one genuine success story to emerge from the big, hairy, super-freak auteurist experiment of the 1970s – the auteur of auteurs. Francis Ford Coppola crashed and burned. Martin Scorsese crashed and came back. Robert Altman was driven into exile, Terrence Malick into early retirement. Who would have guessed that the only film-maker to keep chugging along would be the writer of What’s New Pussycat?

It may tell us something about auteurism as an idea, certainly as a production model in Hollywood, which has always reacted to success by throwing money at it, granting film-makers ever greater control – a dubious drug denying them the artistic constraints and collaboration in which their creativity first flourished. It vacuum-packs their talent.

The one-man-band aspects of Allen’s career mask the juice that he gets from his co-conspirators: Keaton, but also Dianne Wiest, Farrow and Judy Davis. Most of his biggest box-office successes have been co-written: Annie Hall and Manhattan (with Brickman), Bullets Over Broadway (with Douglas McGrath). “The first thing he says is, ‘If you’re not comfortable, change it,’” said Wiest of working on Hannah and Her Sisters.

“It’s as if he’s got a feather in his hand and he blows it and it goes off in a dozen directions,” said Jeff Daniels after starring in The Purple Rose of Cairo. It’s a lovely image, for that is what the film is about: the unruliness of creation running disobediently beyond its creators’ grasp. This is the great Allen theme. It is the theme of Bullets Over Broadway; of his other great farce about artistic creation, “The Kugelmass Episode”, his New Yorker short story about a professor of humanities who drops into the pages of Madame Bovary to conduct an affair with its heroine; and of his one-act play Writer’s Block, in which the characters of an unfinished manuscript push open the drawer and take over the author’s Connecticut house. It is the theme of all of the romances, too, in which women grow, Pygmalionishly, beneath the green fingers of the Allen male, only to outgrow and leave him.

The biggest dead patches in his work, on the other hand, have come when he was most cut off from collaborators: the run of movies he made in the late 1980s and early 1990s with Farrow, clenched in silent agony and overdosed in brown; or the series of comedies that he dug out of his drawer for DreamWorks in the early 2000s – The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Hollywood Ending, Any­thing Else – long after he had lost interest, or could summon the energy for farce.

In some ways, Allen today is a prisoner of the independence from Hollywood he fought for so long to protect. He encourages his actors to change his scripts as much as they want, but who is going to pluck up the courage to tell the quadruple Oscar winner that kids don’t “make love” any more, or fall for “nihilistic pessimism”, or name-drop O’Neill, Sartre and Tennessee Williams? Jason Biggs, the star of American Pie and American Pie 2 and Allen’s lead in his 2003 film Anything Else? I think not.

One should, however, resist the temptation to give up on him. Midnight in Paris moved with the sluggishness of melted Camembert but Blue Jasmine had the leanness of a cracked whip, in part because in Cate Blanchett Allen found a collaborator willing to go the distance with him on a theme close to his heart: female vengeance. “Take after take after take of very exhaustive, emotional scenes,” recalled Alec Baldwin. “I sat there at the end of the day and thought, ‘She is unbelievable.’”

If Allen’s early films mined comedy from Thurber-like fantasists and romantic Machiavels and his mid-period work drew rueful comedy from reality’s refusal to co-operate, his late work seems most preoccupied by the painful urge to peel the world of illusion, to see it stripped bare. He is now at work on his 47th film, starring Blake Lively, Kristen Stewart, Jesse Eisenberg, Parker Posey and Bruce Willis – and the excitement there is surely at the thought of Willis, once the king of the wisecrack and exploding fireball, now 60, collaborating with a film-maker deep into his own twilight. Both men could well find each other’s groove, or, better still, shake one another out of it. Yipikaye, pussycat.

Tom Shone’s “Woody Allen: a Retrospective” will be published by Thames & Hudson on 11 September

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism