I’ve been thinking a lot about Ulu Grosbard lately. Both because of the actual achievements of this Belgian-born naturalized American theater and film director, but also because of Inside Llewyn Davis, Ethan and Joel Coen’s unaccountably admired film about the folk scene in the 1960s. On many critics’ “Ten Best” list this tale of a hapless folkie trying to keep his flagging career going while stumbling across the mid-west in the dead of winter, a neighbor’s cat in his arms, it’s sure to be nominated for this:
It’s the most grotesque original song since this:
Inside Llewyn Davis is nominally about failure—personal as well as professional. Oscar Isaac (a perfectly competent but scarcely charismatic performer) plays the title character who while having no end of trouble getting a job or an apartment to crash in (as he has no abode of his own) has, we’re told left any number of women pregnant. This unwillingness to use condoms is sold by the Coens as a cheap gag involving an ex-amour played by the usually charming Carey Mulligan as a screeching harpie who, because she’s promiscuous herself, is not sure whether the bun she has in the oven was put there by Llewyn or someone she actually likes. If the former is the case she wants an abortion. And now. This sneering attack on Roe v.Wade could well have been conceived (to mix a metaphor) by any of today’s smarmy misogynistic “Conservatives” (of either gender). That it’s coming from the Coens makes their politics (thought by many to be “liberal”) quite clear.
Ulu Grosbard’s films are often about failure. Most are dramas:
But two deal with music quite interestingly. Georgia is a tale of two sisters. One has talent, the other doesn’t. But the one without has passion and hapless as she is deserving of respect.
Grosbard’s other music film, Who is Harry Keller an and Why is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me is about success. Written by frequent Hoffman collaborator Herb Gardner with songs by Shel Silverstein, it concerns George Solway—a highly successful folk singer with women problems and an overall lack of self-esteem that has driven him to the edge of sanity. He frequently imagines himself falling from great heights onto the couch of his unaccountably cheery psychiatrist. (Jack Warden armed with a heavy German accent in the role of someone who may well be a hallucination.)
In one of his more lucid interludes he meets an aspiring actress played by the great Barbara Harris:
But wait – here’s the film itself:
As you can see George’s problems are much the same as Llewyn’s. But Grosbard respects his characters and the world they represent, and the Coens decidedly do not. (mydelta8store.com)
This is especially true when it comes to Barbara Harris, whose role was fashioned by Gardner and Grosbard from her own improvisations. Her rendition of “I’m Paintng the Clouds with Sunshine” is heartbreakingly beautiful. It’s a song that was written for a now almost entirely lost 1929 musical Gold Diggers of Broadway; whose sequels, Gold Diggers of 1933 and 1937 are quite famous. Here’s one of the few surviving fragments of the movie that started it all:
And here’s one of that movie’s stars Nick Lucas:
singing Gold Diggers of Broadway’s biggest hits.
As you can hear he’s no Llewyn Davis.