DOWN FROM THE MOUNTAINNR
The soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the Depression-era comedy from Joel and Ethan Coen, featured a who's who of roots music, from bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley to blues newcomer Chris Thomas King. Assembled by producer T. Bone Burnett, the score has topped Americana charts since its release. To benefit the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, the Coens and Burnett organized a concert featuring many of the soundtrack musicians on May 24, 2000. The show, which took place at the Ryman Auditorium, was filmed by documentarians Nick Doob, Chris Hegedus, and D.A. Pennebaker.
Down From the Mountain includes rehearsals, short interviews and some archival footage, as well as the concert. Twenty-nine songs, most of them from O Brother, Where Art Thou?, appear in the film. In what is likely his last filmed performance before succumbing to cancer, master of ceremonies John Hartford introduces the acts as well as performing himself. Gillian Welch, who had a bit part in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, plays a large role here, appearing in duets and trios as well as singing two songs with her musical partner, David Rawlings. At one point, Hartford and Welch resurrect 'Indian War Whoop,' first recorded in the 1920s by Hoyt Ming and His Pep Steppers.
Other performers include Fairfield Four, an a cappella gospel group and Nashville favorites; perennial bluegrass Grammy winner Alison Krauss and her band Union Station; Grand Ole Opry stalwarts The Whites; and the Peasall Sisters, three young girls who also appeared in the film. Ralph Stanley, one of the early pioneers of bluegrass music, is represented by his classics 'I Am A Man of Constant Sorrow' and 'Angel Band.' He also receives an ovation for his unaccompanied rendition of 'O Death,' a song used during the Ku Klux Klan rally in O Brother, Where Art Thou?.
For some fans, the most anticipated numbers in Down From the Mountain will be those sung by the trio of Welch, Krauss and Emmylou Harris, including 'Green Pastures' and '(Didn't Leave) Nobody But the Baby.' But the strongest performance in the film may come from The Cox Family, a Louisiana bluegrass group. Suzanne Cox's voice is startlingly pure in 'I Am Weary (Let Me Rest),' while the whole family shines in a rousing version of '(Will There Be Any) Stars in My Crown.'
Roots-music lovers will find plenty here to applaud. Still, the documentary could have benefited from more explanatory footage, or perhaps even a voice-over. The interviews are too sketchy to be of much use, while the supporting footage (mostly travelogue shots of Nashville) is largely superfluous. But if you're a fan of folk music, country blues, bluegrass or other roots genres, Down From the Mountain more than delivers. While its theatrical returns may be limited, the documentary should achieve considerable success on TV and video.