Minnesota legends loom over “Inside Llewyn Davis,” the Coen brothers’ artful folk-music revenge film

That’s W. Eugene Smith’s gorgeous portrait (above) of Bob Dylan, circa 1965, from the MIA’s photography collection. Smith was the ultimate photojournalist, of course, his images of war for Life magazine setting the standard for documentary photography when Dylan was still in diapers in Duluth. Five years before this photo was taken, no one knew who Dylan was outside Minnesota and hardly even here. At 24 he was sitting for the master.

"Inside Llewyn Davis," the new Coen brothers' film, may owe more to Minnesota than they've let on.

“Inside Llewyn Davis,” the new Coen brothers’ film, may owe more to Minnesota than they’ve let on.

Inside Llewyn Davis, the acclaimed new film by Minnesota natives Joel and Ethan Coen, is set in New York in February 1961—Dylan arrived from the Midwest on January 24. Dylan’s music plays but he’s never seen; he’s the hurricane just offshore, coming to destroy the would-be king of the Greenwich Village folk scene, Llewyn Davis. The Coens are cruel like that. But Davis seems to deserve what he gets. Here, in an early trailer, no one minces words about his failings.

The story, reportedly, is loosely based on the autobiography of Dave Van Ronk, who really was the reigning king of the Village folk scene when Dylan blew in and quickly blew everything up. But Van Ronk was a jolly bear of a man who helped Dylan and other carpetbagging folkies find gigs and make their name. Davis, on the other hand, actually seems partly inspired by Minnesota folk icons Koerner, Ray, and Glover, who befriended Dylan in Minneapolis before he left for New York. They passed the hat around the Village bars as much as anyone in the early 1960s—Dave Ray had an apartment there—and their breakthrough Elektra album Blues, Rags, and Hollers galvanized the staid scene even if they never quite capitalized on its success. When I interviewed “Spider John” Koerner and Tony Glover in 2005, they admitted letting youthful pride and insouciance occasionally derail opportunities. I was writing a profile of Spider John for Minnesota Monthly, in advance of a documentary about him. The headline: “He captivated Dylan, Lennon, and countless lesser legends by spinning America’s musical heritage into foot-stomping art. But did his own shot at stardom get trapped in his web?”

In an era of crewcut frat-folk trios, Koerner and his Minneapolis pals stood out, just as Llewyn Davis does in the film: they’re darker, dirtier, more dangerous. Tony Glover, the trio’s harmonica whiz, told me, “I was visiting Dave Ray, staying at his place in Greenwich Village. Koerner showed up, pounding on the door way too early on Saturday morning. Koerner was down from Rochester to hook up with a girlfriend who was a stewardess on a layover in the city for the weekend. He scared me a bit at first, seemed pretty intense and energetic, but turned out to be a good guy. Dave wound up loaning him—and his girl—the apartment for the night, which put me and Dave on the street, hitting coffeehouses, hustling a few bucks, looking for a place to crash.”

Glover was also realistic, if wistful, about the trio’s fate: “There was always one of us who managed to piss off anybody who could do us some good,” he says. “And we weren’t part of the whole East Coast folk mafia. I think we were maybe a little too untamed for the suits.”

Mostly though, it seems that Davis is Dylan, who notoriously borrowed (stole) records, stylings, and more from Koerner, Ray, Glover, Van Ronk, and many others in his single-minded pursuit of the spotlight. (If you’ve never seen Dylan’s paintings, essentially copied  from famous photographs, you’re in for a headshaking treat.) Which would make Inside Llewyn Davis a characteristically wry Coen brothers story: Dylan/Davis, the impetuous ass from the Coens’ home state, finally gets what’s coming to him—in the form of himself.

The cover image for Dylan's 1965 album "Bringing it All Back Home," by Dan Kramer.

The cover image for Dylan’s 1965 album “Bringing it All Back Home,” by Dan Kramer.

W. Eugene Smith, meanwhile, may have understood the ascendent Dylan better than most. Before he took his portrait of Dylan, he was consulted by photographer Dan Kramer, who had spent months writing and calling Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman (portrayed by John Goodman in the film), angling for a session with the 23-year-old star. Finally, in August 1964, he got the okay for a shoot in Woodstock—and many more over a year-and-a-half. Kramer brought his photos to Smith at the latter’s New York loft, and recorded their conversations. “Those contact sheets still have the yellow marks he made on them,” Kramer told the New York Times in 1995. “What he was looking for was a rhythm, a music.” Kramer wound up shooting the covers of Dylan’s Bringing it Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited albums and producing the first book about Dylan, in 1967.

Smith’s sympathies with Dylan, however, were more than musical: “An artist,” he once said, “must be ruthlessly selfish.”