Dave Van Ronk. Photo: Marc Norberg

Dave Van Ronk. Photo: Marc Norberg

 Folkie legend Dave Van Ronk, one of the mainstays of the Greenwich Village music scene in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, isn’t as well known as his old rival Bob Dylan, but that may be about to change. Joel and Ethan Coen are reportedly working on a film loosely based on the late singer-guitarist’s life.

Last month Joel Coen told an audience at New York’s Lincoln Center “We’re working on a movie now that has music in it but it’s pretty much all performed live, single instrument.” The Los Angeles Times confirmed that the project is inspired by Van Ronk’s experiences at the birth of the coffeehouse scene. The Coens are drawing material from Van Ronk’s posthumous memoir “The Mayor of MacDougal Street,” according to the report.\

It’s a rich slice of cultural history. The counterculture and protest movements of the 1960s have deep roots in the student culture around Washington Square’s little cellar clubs, and singers such as Joni Mitchell and Phil Ochs were discovered there. As the gatekeeper of the folk scene, Van Ronk mentored Dylan and soon saw the Midwestern newcomer who crashed on his sofa blaze past him to concerts, gold albums and world tours. Van Ronk never crossed over to commercial success and mainstream fame. A true believer in purist folk-revival values, he equated becoming too visible or successful with selling out.

The Coens have made several music-intensive films before, tapping into gospel for “The Ladykillers,” eclectic oddities and obscurities for “The Big Lebowski” and old-time and bluegrass for “O Brother Where Art Thou?” all of which yielded popular soundtrack albums. Whether the Van Ronk project will see the light of day remains to be seen; the prolific Coens have quite a few unproduced screenplays to their credit.

The next Coen project due through the production pipeline likely will be their take on the 1966 Michael Caine heist comedy “Gambit.” The Coens’ revisionist screenplay, starring Colin Firth and Cameron Diaz, is currently shooting in London, directed by Michael Hoffman (“The Last Station.”) It will be released by CBS Films in 2012. 

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