Llewyn Davis, troubadour as hipster wastrel

In Dalston over the sea
In Dalston over the sea

If you’ve spent a lifetime going to the cinema you probably won’t have heard one character accuse another of being a Shachtmanite writes Liam Mac Uaid. They were an obscure and largely forgotten offshoot of American Trotskyism. This verbal curio is the only indication you’d get that the United States folk scene of the late 50s and early 60s had a strong radical edge to it, though it would be fair to guess that this reference would be lost on a significant minority of viewers. Pete Seeger, who died within a few days of the British release of Inside Llewyn Davis directed by Ethan and Joel Coen was perhaps the best-known example of the political musician. Though Dylan’s influence is hinted at right at the end of this epic of self-centredness.

The Coens depict their folk singer as a hipster wastrel who makes a mess of everything he does, from looking after a cat to trying to get gigs. With his beard, self-absorption and studiedly scruffy clothes he could be any one of the thousands who fill the streets of the hipper parts of London from Thursday night to Sunday evening. His main interaction with a political organisation is a botched attempt to go to sea which is thwarted by union rules. It’s just not fair!

The penny drops that this is supposed to be an odyssey when the cat’s name is revealed to be Ulysses. In this case though it is a journey without a resolution, destination or obvious purpose. Oscar Isaac, who plays Davis, bumbles from one crisis to the next never once displaying a glimpse of self-awareness of his own contribution to the mess that his life has become.

Idiosyncrasy is a hallmark of the Coens’ films and the name of their anti-hero maintains that tradition. However it was a loser’s story that could have been set in any place in any time. The few bits of period music that do appear are well-crafted, such as the Clancy Brothers tribute, which features musical Satan Marcus Mumford, but anyone looking for a film from which they will learn about the New York folk scene will have to look elsewhere.


  1. Suprising that you never mentioned Dave Van Ronk, whose autobiography inspired this film.

    His former wife and manager, Terri Thal explains the difference between the fictional and real character here:-

    “Llewyn Davis is a not-very smart, somewhat selfish, confused young man for whom music is a way to make a living.
    It’s not a calling, as it was for David and for some others.”


    The real “Mayor of McDougall Street” was a member of the Healyite Workers League until the late 1960’s, hence the references to ‘Shachtmanites’.
    (Shachtman was a former US Trotskyist, who moved rightwards during the 1940’s and ended up supporting US intervention in Vietnam)

    Van Ronk is also recognised as being a key mentor of the young Bob Dylan.

  2. What about Phil Ochs? Wasn’t he a Trotskyist of the Marcyite tendency? And Liam, please don’t say you haven’t heard of Phil Ochs. Or of the Marcyites.

    “O the marines have landed on the shores of Santa Domingo”….

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