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The early-1960s folk music scene of New York is the setting for Inside Llewyn Davis, the latest film from the Coen brothers. Inspired by the memoirs of musician Dave Van Ronk, who was working the bars and coffeehouses of Greenwich Village at the same time as Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg, it follows a week in the life of penniless singer-songwriter Llewyn Davis (played by Oscar Isaac) as he struggles to make his mark in the bitterly cold winter of 1961.
The centre of Manhattan’s alternative music scene in the late 1950s and early 1960s was MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village, where Van Ronk and his contemporaries would perform at venues such as the Gaslight Café and Café Wha? – known as “basket houses” because a basket would be passed around the audience at the end of the night for tips.
The Gaslight, where much of the film’s action takes place, is now a basement cocktail bar called simply 116 (116 MacDougal Street), which puts on regular poetry and music nights, though the bohemian spirit that attracted Beat poets such as Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac has long since left the building. Next door, the Café Wha? (115 MacDougal St, cafewha.com), where Dylan made his New York debut, is still a popular music venue but Gerde’s Folk City (11 West 4th Street), another venue mentioned in the film, shut down in the 1980s. Scenes set in the Gaslight were filmed on a set in Brooklyn but much of the film was shot on the streets of Manhattan. One venue that required little in the way of artifice to recreate a retro vibe is Caffe Reggio (119 MacDougal St), which has a small cameo in the film as a meeting place for Davis and his friend Jean (played by Carey Mulligan). This neighbourhood coffee shop, which has changed little in appearance since it opened in 1927, is no stranger to the big screen, having featured as a backdrop in The Godfather Part II (1974) and Shaft (1971).
Another instantly recognisable location is Washington Square Park, which, in the late 1950s, was a hub where young folk and bluegrass musicians would gather to perform and share songs. Although it has undergone a facelift in recent years, the square is still a popular hang-out for students from New York University, political activists and buskers, and it hosts its own folk festival in September (facebook.com/wspfolkfestival).
Where to stay
Hotelier and restaurateur Sean MacPherson has cornered the market in hip West Village hang-outs. In 2008 he scored a hit with the opening of the Jane Hotel, a bohemian chic bolt-hole in a former sailors’ hotel with some of the best-value rooms in the neighbourhood (113 Jane St, thejanenyc.com; doubles from $225 per night). His new project, the renovated Marlton Hotel, combining Parisian style with impeccable Beatnik credentials (Jack Kerouac penned The Subterraneans and Tristessa while staying here) looks set to be a similar success (5 West 8th Street, marltonhotel.com; doubles from $150).