Authenticity is always a tricky trap in folk music, as the title character in the new Inside Llewyn Davis (pictured) discovers. A Greenwich Village guitar-slinger in 1961, Davis (Oscar Isaac) routinely rails at other musicians for their supposed “careerism, ” yet he’s desperate himself for show business success. He meets a singing cowboy who turns out to be a Jew from New Jersey. And at the end of the film, there arrives on the scene a raspy-voiced kid named Bob, who will throw everyone’s notions of folkie authenticity out the window.
To be sure, folk music, like blues, jazz, and every other American popular music form that’s traveled from the juke joint to the concert hall, is inextricably entwined with commerce. There are always questions of selling out, of cultural appropriation, of commercial exploitation. You can’t separate the content from the packaging and salesmanship. Purity is an illusion, and all creativity has to make peace with the means of production and distribution.
That’s something Llewyn Davis doesn’t grasp but that Inside Llewyn Davis does. Like most movies about folk music, it grasps the tension between that desire for authenticity and the desire to be heard. In the movies, some folk musicians handle that conflict well, others disastrously. The earnestness with which most movie folkies approach the issue makes for good satire, or sometimes tragedy, although it’s also possible to take a craftier, more elusive approach, as that Bob fella figured out. Here, then, are 10 of the greatest big-screen tales of working-class heroes taking on the world with an acoustic six-string and a microphone.