January 14, 2014: Throughout the screening of Inside Llewyn Davis at the Coolidge Corner Theatre Monday night, I kept wondering about the significance of the orange tabby cat that kept popping up, sometimes improbably, in the story. Did the cat symbolize aspiring folk singer Llewyn’s rootless circuit from friend’s floor to acquaintance’s couch and back—claiming no real home as his own? Or did the cat represent Llewyn’s fragile dreams that kept escaping his grasp, only to be injured beyond repair on a doomed road trip to Chicago? Or was the cat a symbol of Llewyn’s inability to bond with anyone for very long—and the cat’s return indicative of Llewyn finding his way home again?
I’m still not sure about the cat, but luckily Elijah Wald was there to shed some light on other little-known facts about the movie. Wald, a musician, music historian, and author, was on hand to introduce the Golden Globe-nominated Inside Llewyn Davis and he re-appeared after the credits to play a few songs from the era and answer audience questions.
Wald is the co-author, with the late folk singer Dave Van Ronk, of The Mayor of MacDougal Street, a memoir about Van Ronk that served as the inspiration for the Coen brothers’ new movie.
Wald opened his talk by addressing the most commonly asked question about the book and the movie: is Llewyn Davis a faithful rendering of Dave Van Ronk?
“Dave and Llewyn were different,” Wald said to the crowd of thirty or so people who had stayed behind after the movie ended. “Dave came from a jazz background—he didn’t do folk music at first. But he worked out a [folk] guitar style based on his jazz training. It’s a style you still hear in music today.”
Van Ronk was the biggest name in Greenwich Village folk of the late 50’s, early 60’s, before Bob Dylan appeared on the scene. He was Wald’s mentor, teacher, and friend, “the smartest man I’ve ever known,” Wald recalled wistfully. He died in 2002 from complications during post-operative surgery for colon cancer.
“Peter, Paul & Mary—they were ‘pretty.’ Dave didn’t sound like that. He had a rough voice. A new generation of folk singers that Dave led didn’t want to sound pretty—they wanted to sound real, like sharecroppers or farmers…they referred to themselves as ‘Neoethnics.’”
Wald also refuted the claim that Van Ronk would have been a better-known folk singer but he never wanted to “sell out.”
“Dave Van Ronk would have loved to have had a goddamn hit,” Wald said, punctuating that fact by flashing an image on the big screen of the magazine Disco Scene with Van Ronk on the cover. Although a big hit never materialized, Van Ronk closed The Mayor of MacDougal Street by writing, “I wanted to be a musician and I’m a musician and that’s what it’s all about.”
Wald’s own professional breakthrough—the Coen Brothers buying film rights to The Mayor of MacDougal Street—came as a surprise to him when he read about it on the Internet. The film rights were optioned six years before, he said, and he expected they’d be used to make a biography of Van Ronk for the Discovery channel, not a major motion picture directed by two Oscar winners. But once he heard what the Coen Brothers were doing, Wald didn’t hesitate to audition for a part in the movie—a role that was eventually given to someone who, as Wald put it, was better suited to play it than he was.
“The Coen brothers are fans of this music,” Wald explained, “one day Ethan turned to Joel—or maybe Joel turned to Ethan—and said, “Let’s do a movie that opens with a folk singer getting beat up outside Folk City (the club on which the Coens based their Gaslight Café)?” Wald loved that the movie featured a live, uncut performance by Oscar Isaac of an old folk song, “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me.”
“They had me from there,” he remarked with a wide smile as he recalled the experience of first seeing the film.
As for the cat, Wald only commented that, despite the fact that a cat appears in the doorway on the cover of Dave Van Ronk’s album Inside Dave Van Ronk, the Coen brothers swear they didn’t see it; the casting of a cat in the movie was purely a coincidence. And Wald added, “Dave’s not a cat person.”