The Coens structured O Brother in large part as a showcase of "old timey music" -- especially classic bluegrass, gospel and blues -- and the soundtrack is its most resplendent quality, no matter how you feel about the rest of the film. Down From the Mountain, by presenting the same songs performed by the actual artists, at once celebrates O Brother and makes it a bit obsolete.
Mountain is directed by Nick Doob, Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker, who between them have helmed such rockumentaries as Monterey Pop, Dont Look Back and Bowie: Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. Recorded at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium in May 2000, the concert proves a tribute to a kind of authentic country music that's been an endangered species during the past couple of decades.
The film's first half-hour offers leisurely but largely charming backstage and rehearsal footage building up to the performance. Many of Down From the Mountain's musicians could be called new students at the old school, such as country singer/songwriter Gillian Welch and Chris Thomas King (who plays the bluesman character in O Brother). "It's the way people talk, but it's the way nobody talks," Welch says of the earthy songwriting traditions.
An early montage neatly captures the continuity of generations, as we first see elderly Ralph Stanley, "the King of Mountain Soul," singing the hymn "Angel Band." Then we cut to the spirited Cox Family performing the same song, and conclude with Emmylou Harris in her dressing room, accompanying herself on the guitar. Harris provides the film's most amusing moment, singing a few lovely verses of "Red Dirt Girl," then cutting herself off to check the latest baseball scores.
Introduced by Holly Hunter, the concert has a wry master of ceremonies in the recently deceased John Hartford, who wears a bowler hat at a whimsical angle and his glasses at the end of his nose. A musicologist -- and, as we see early on, riverboat captain -- Hartford plays violin and sings "Big Rock Candy Mountain," a vision of a hobo paradise from O Brother's opening credits.
The Ryman concert maintains a no-frills, "unplugged" kind of vibe, with overalls or church-goin' clothes being the costumes of choice. Don't expect laser shows or choreography, as it takes the kind of approach that wants to put as little as possible between the performer and the audience. The a cappella pieces in particular foster intimacy, such as Stanley's solo, haunting "O Death," the Fairfield Four's exultant work song "Po Lazarus" and Harris, Welch and Alison Krauss' angelic yet seductive lullaby "Didn't Leave Nothing But the Baby."
With just over an hour devoted to concert itself, Mountain doesn't have room for all of the evening's songs, and fans of O Brother's platinum soundtrack album may quibble with some of the cuts. Krauss' admittedly repetitious hymn "Down to the River to Pray" is shortened, and we cut away from King's rollicking "John Law Burned Down the Liquor Sto" for some pointless backstage business. Most surprising, we don't get to see Dan Tyminski sing "Man of Constant Sorrow," O Brother's "hit single." Surely everyone knows that George Clooney lip-synced it.
Shot on video, Down From the Mountain amounts to an unusually diverse and homey installment of "Austin City Limits." Some of the performers are nervous (the young Peasall sisters, physically rigid but vocally light with "In the Highways") and some of the tunes are mournful, like the Whites' "I am Weary (Let Me Rest)." But mostly the singing and the songs are all about joy: The Whites' "Keep on the Sunny Side," the Cox Family's "Will There Be Any Stars in My Crown," Welch and Krauss' "I'll Fly Away." At times it's hard not to sing along.
With street scenes including the music club Tootsie's Orchid Lounge, Down From the Mountain evokes a Nashville that's older and more authentic than the hats-and-headsets acts that dominate country radio, but without delving into the kitsch of the Grand Ole Opry's golden age. As the Coens say in their Down From the Mountain liner notes, "None of the songs mention pina coladas, margaritas, trailer hitches or shoving one's job up one's ass."
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