Let’s all pick up our guitars and banjos and have a hootenanny!
And let’s make it a cinematic hootenanny at that!
The Coen Brothers are into it. Joel and Ethan have cooked up Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), new to DVD and Blu-ray, the story of a week in the life of a struggling folk musician (expertly played by Oscar Isaac) in 1961 Greenwich Village. Loosely based on the life of real-life folkies Dave von Ronk and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, the film follows the struggling singer-songwriter as he meets some memorable Village characters (including nasty jazz artist John Goodman, record producer F. Murray Abraham, and rival folkie Justin Timberlake), is forced to pay for an abortion by an ex-girlfriend (Carey Mulligan), and has several encounters with a cat.
True to the sibling moviemakers’ form, Inside Llewyn Davis is offbeat and unpredictable, looks fantastic (photography by Amelie’s Bruno Delbonnel), and is filled with great music overseen by producers by Marcus Mumford and T-Bone Burnett, who worked with the Coens on O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000). The DVD and Blu-ray feature an extensive “making of” documentary. An all-star concert performance of the film’s score with Isaac, Patti Smith, Jack White and others, Another Day/Another Time: Celebrating the Music of Inside Llewyn Davis, is making the rounds.
Meandering? A bit. Freewheeling? Appropriately. But what do you expect when co-writer/co-director Joel Coen says “the film doesn’t really have a plot. That concerned us at one point; that’s why we threw the cat in”?
The Coens previously delved into folkie turf with O Brother, Where Art Thou?, their funky road picture with George Clooney leading a group of escaped cons through the rural South of the late 1930s, as Ralph Stanley, Alison Kraus, Emmylou Harris, John Hartford and Gillian Welch provide the travelling music.
Produced by T-Bone Burnett, the film’s soundtrack was so successful that it prompted a concert tour with the featured performers, as well as a 2000 DVD release of the show called Down from the Mountain.
Of course, the Coens aren’t the only ones with something to sing about regarding the folk music scene on DVD and Blu-ray.
There’s also Bob Roberts (1992), with director-star Tim Robbins as a conservative “populist” Pennsylvania politician who makes his points by way of his songs like “The Times They Sure Changing Back.” Meanwhile, an investigative journalist (Giancarlo Esposito) is on his trail, hoping to reveal a scandal from the increasingly popular politico’s past. A darkly funny satire with a memorable, deeply troubling ending, Bob Roberts shows us what can happen when we vest too much attention in the music, but maybe not the words.
Bob Roberts is a descendant of director Elia Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg’s A Face in the Crowd (1957), a pitch-black satire that’s still stinging after all of these years. In a career-best performance, Andy Griffith plays Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, a homespun Arkansas hobo turned local radio host who gets schooled in the art of media manipulation, then uses people and throws them aside as his listenership—and megalomania—grows. “Lonesome” Rhodes turns out to be part Will Rogers, part Rush Limbaugh, but mostly someone to fear.
A more genial satire with a relation to folk singing can be found with Christopher Guest’s A Mighty Wind (2003). Sweeter than previous Guest-and-company mockumentaries like Waiting for Guffman or Best in Show, A Mighty Wind traces the history of The Folksmen, a popular and long-split ‘60s folk band who are reuniting for a memorial concert in honor of their late ex-promoter. Guest enlists friends Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Michael McKean and Harry Shearer as the performers for the festivities. They sing and compose original music in the vein of groups like Peter, Paul & Mary, the Kingston Trio and The Weavers, while the reasons for the Folksmen’s split is eventually revealed. What makes the film work so well are the seemingly real foibles of the band’s personalities and the music, which can be taken as either the real deal or as a subtle ribbing of the folk genre.
If it’s pure, unmitigated folk music you want, the hootenanny has to include Bob Dylan. We got him covered pretty well, here: https://www.moviefanfare.com/subterranean-homevideo-blues-strange-bob-dylan-movie-moments/
Meanwhile, the much-beloved, recently departed Pete Seeger is spotlighted in the top-notch documentary Pete Seeger: The Power of Song (2007), which takes a powerful look at his political activism, environmental work and, of course, his music.
Equally stirring is The Weavers: Wasn’t That a Time! (1982), a superb concert documentary that celebrates the seminal folk group that included Seeger, Ronnie Gilbert, Lee Hays and Fred Hellerman as they reunite after a long absence for a reunion show at Carnegie Hall. The inspiration for A Mighty Wind is obvious, but, sadly, neither Wasn’t That a Time or Power of Song are currently available on DVD.
Pete’s mentor and mentor’s son have been represented well on screen, too. Hal Ashby’s biographical saga Bound for Glory (1976), is a mostly fictional account of the rebellious folk balladeer Woody Guthrie (David Carradine at his finest) from 1936 to 1940, when he moved from Oklahoma to California, becoming politicized along the way. Featuring a first-rate supporting cast that includes Melinda Dillon, Ronny Cox, Randy Quaid and Gail Strickland, Haskell Wexler’s lustrous, Oscar-winning cinematography, and such classics “This Land is Your Land” and “This Train is Bound for Glory,” Bound for Glory cries for a bigger audience (it didn’t register with audiences when first released) and a new DVD and Blu-ray release.
Arlo Guthrie, Woody’s son, made his own cinematic splash with Alice’s Restaurant (1969), Arthur Penn’s counter-culture favorite. Based on his epic song-story “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree,” the episodic film touches on the issues of the Vietnam War and the draft, as well as the hippie lifestyle.
Arlo essentially plays himself, a wandering troubadour who settles in with restaurant owners Alice and Ray at a Massachusetts commune, but eventually witnesses his –and his generation’s—dreams fade into the sunset as tensions escalate involving a vet’s return, hassling police and the death of his father Woody (played by an actor). . A lament to the fading idealistic mindset of 1960s love and peace generation, the film offers a cast that mixes amateurs with pro actors, a cameo by Pete Seeger, and songs by Seeger, Joni Mitchell and Woody and Arlo Guthrie.
More recently, Songcatcher (1999) caught the attention of folk purists with its sensitive story and soundtrack focusing on Appalachian music. Janet McTeer plays the music professor who finds musical, social and romantic surprises as she decides to share old English folk songs she has discovered with the outside world. Along with this low-key but compelling film comes sweet sounds supplied by Emmylou Harris, Roseanne Cash, Dolly Parton and a very young Emmy Rossum, who also co-stars in the film.
In order to make this cinematic circle unbroken, let’s go back to New York by way of Greenwich Village: Music That Defined a Generation (2012), a wonderful documentary dissertation on the Village as the folk center of the world. Narrated by Susan Sarandon, the film presents superb archival clips, newsreel footage and present-day interviews with the folks who put the folk in “folk music.”
You’ll witness a pre-Mamas and Papas Mama Cass Elliott on “The Merv Griffin Show,” fascinating scenes of smoky nightclubs and outdoor Village get-togethers of the past, and loving reminisces from Don McLean, John Sebastian, Pete Seeger, Judy Collins, Richie Havens and others.
Llewyn Davis and the cat would love it.