A budding folk singer's struggle to connect with fans is at the heart of Joel and Ethan Coen's latest film, "Inside Llewyn Davis," their historically informed story of a musician trying to find his way in the Greenwich Village folk music scene circa 1961.
Off the screen, however, Davis has already won some big fans in the music business who are delighted in those rare instances when music and musicians take the center stage on screen.
"From our standpoint at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, we love movies like that because they really make people take a look at where the current music they listen to comes from," said Rock Hall of Fame Foundation President Joel Peresman. "Whatever tragic stories make up the movie, the underlying music and the sense it creates of that time period help to raise people's interest in a certain genre of music."
Film and music critics have, understandably, drawn parallels between "Inside Llewyn Davis" and 2000's "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" in large part because of their shared creative lineage from the Coen brothers and music producer T Bone Burnett.
"O Brother" and the accompanying soundtrack became runaway hits, with the album scoring an upset win at the Grammy Awards when the country and bluegrass-steeped collection took the overall album of the year honor.
"The 'O Brother' music really shed light on musical styles a lot of people really didn't know much about," said Phil Gallo, Billboard's senior correspondent for TV and film music. "There's real variety on that record, whether it's early country, old blues or gospel. If you did like that music, there were really good performances that were captured with the beauty of modern recording equipment."
The "O Brother" album sold more than 8 million copies in the U.S. and helped inspire a new generation of musicians to explore acoustic-based, roots music styles. Those sounds are also at the core of "Inside Llewyn Davis" as played by the musicians featured in it, notably England's Marcus Mumford, Chris Thile and his band the Punch Brothers, Chris Eldridge and even pop-R&B superstar Justin Timberlake, who gets to play half of a Simon & Garfunkel-like folk duo.
Even though the "Inside Llewyn Davis" soundtrack includes recordings by members of the original Greenwich Village scene in which the film is set, including Bob Dylan and singer and songwriter Dave Van Ronk, who is widely acknowledged as the blueprint for the fictional Davis character, Gallo suggested it's not likely to be those tracks that create whatever legacy the movie and album establish. Rather, it will rise or fall on the musical performances by Oscar Isaac as Llewyn Davis.
"I honestly believe those performances from Oscar are the ones that could resonate with people rather than the name folks," he said. "For a listener who is hearing this music for the first time, Oscar has a nice way of playing the guitar and has a very nice voice that's very different from Dave Van Ronk's voice. If you really like the movie, it's a cool souvenir of the film."
But rather than representing a possible replay of the "O Brother" phenomenon, "Inside Llewyn Davis" may be more closely aligned with another music-centric film that became a left-field success: "Crazy Heart," which earned star Jeff Bridges an Academy Award for his 2009 portrayal of down-but-not-completely-out country singer Bad Blake.
"That's a much smarter parallel. 'Inside Llewyn Davis' is much more likely to perform like that," Gallo said, in handicapping its possible appeal to awards voters. "The issue becomes whether a record had a single you could put out in the up for awards consideration. There's no song here [in 'Llewyn Davis'] that could get that sort of award consideration. 'Please Mr. Kennedy,' that is derivative of a few things, but it's a little too [novelty oriented]."
Awards prospects notwithstanding, "Inside Llewyn Davis" could echo "O Brother's" jump-start interest in folk-rooted music and, in turn, sales of acoustic instruments.
"It's funny — there's so much going on right now with acoustic guitars. People keep asking me why," said C.F. "Chris" Martin IV, chief executive of the 180-year-old Martin Guitar company. "I usually get this faraway look in my eye, and then say, 'It was all my idea.'
"Actually, I think the real key to success in any business is that when something like that does happen, you pay attention. I can't point to any one thing, but the acoustic guitar is more popular today than it's ever been."
Whether "Inside Llewyn Davis" has a significant influence on the number of people buying acoustic guitars in the wake of its release won't be known for several months. But Martin said he'll be watching closely for any evidence when he and other representatives from his company head to Anaheim in January for the annual National Assn. of Music Merchants convention, the largest gathering of musical equipment manufacturers and retailers in the world. NAMM is where music equipment dealers map out their purchases for the year ahead and where consumer preference trends and changes tend to surface first.
"The movie has just come out," he said, "but if we get to NAMM and the dealers say, 'I've gotta tell you that since that movie came out, people have come into the store, referenced the movie and bought new products,' then we'll know it's having an impact." Beyond that, the Llewyn Davis character plays a special model Martin guitar in some scenes, and Martin said the movie's influence will be apparent if orders spike on that model.
Llewyn Davis' fortunes in the film aside, the Coen brothers and Burnett have solidified their fan base in various corners of the music business with their latest collaboration.
"From our standpoint," said Peresman at the Rock Hall of Fame, "it can't hurt. It's just great if this film can open a few minds, introduce a few people to an entire genre of music. It's a big win for everybody. It's a win for the new people coming to this music, and it's win for people who appreciate where these things came from."
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