*SPOILER WARNING: This review ruins some key moments in Inside Llewyn Davis, so beware if you’ve not seen it yet!*
Ever since the day after I got to see the Coen Bros.’ Inside Llewyn Davis, I’ve been listening to the soundtrack almost incessantly. What struck me in some of my repeated listens were two versions of the same song that more or less bookend the album – “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song)”. In thinking about it further and reflecting on the movie afterwards, that this song actually encapsulates much of the character development and plot found in the movie. Indeed, much of the movie actually revolves around this song.
We’re introduced to the song when Llewyn puts on the album that he and his now-deceased partner Mike Timson put out (played in a vocal cameo by Marcus Mumford). It’s the cut we hear from the album and, presumably, it was the lead track/single, as the first four words of the song comprise the title of the album (“If I Had Wings”). Despite its slightly somber title, their version has a fairly upbeat poppy (for 60s folk) arrangement in 4/4, with some interlocking fingerpicking parts with a guitar and banjo and a break for a fiddle solo.With Mike taking the high parts in their two-part harmonies, his voice easily dominates over Llewyn’s lower one. This is, essentially, the type of music bigwig Sal Grossman tells Llewyn he should be involved in in Chicago after Llewyn plays him a song from his solo record, and, it seems, the exact type of music that Llewyn wants to get away from.
While it doesn’t seem that Llewyn was particularly glad of his partner’s dead, it’s clear that he did see it as a chance to establish his own voice, and play the way he wants to play, as evidenced by the scene in which he’s staying over at the house of a professor friend of his. He and his wife ask Llewyn to play a song after dinner, to which he begrudgingly obliges. He begins to play “Fare Thee Well” (a very different version, which we’d hear later) and the wife begins to sing the high harmony, which causes Llewyn to stop playing. “But that was Mike’s part!” she claims, to which Llewyn responds “Fuck Mike’s part!” He then goes on about not wanting to do what he does for a living on command, for free just to entertain people. The idea of being beholden to his past career and replicating what worked in the past to gain any sort of attention or acclaim in anathema to Llewyn. He wants to do it absolutely his way, which why he says no to Sal Grossman.
Towards the end of the film, we see Llewyn’s performance from the opening of it, but where one song was omitted at the beginning, here we get to see it in full – “Fare Thee Well”. It’s stripped down to just its basic chords, and put in a more insistent, more lyrical 3/4, as we get to hear the melody soar for the first time, with Llewyn putting his heart into it. “I have a man/who’s long and tall” has been changed to “the woman I love/is long and tall” as Llewyn tries to put as much of himself in the song as possible (his semi-requited for love for Jean, chiefly), also adding the stanza “one of these mornings/it won’t be long/you’ll call my name/and I’ll be gone” that wasn’t in the first version – Llewyn clearly doesn’t want to stick around Greenwich Village forever after the time he’s had. At the same time, performing that song live and accepting it back into his life after his history with it allows him to literally say goodbye to his partner and that chapter of career and go forward his way, for whatever fortune that brings him.
Llewyn likes his folk pure as he can get it, (as you see his disdain for the quartet of minty-sweatered college boys singing “The Auld Triangle”) and is trying to be both successful and honest in a world which rarely rewards both in the same way. The stark contrast in the different versions of “Fare Thee Well” go a long way in showing Llewyn’s attitude towards music (ostensibly, his life) which, in turn, gives an insight into why he often seems to make the odd decisions he does in the movie and ends up where he does.