After writing the screenplay to their latest film
O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU?, the Coen brothers next needed
to find the right kind of music. They decided to feature Americana
That's the spin anyway. I get the suspicion it's really
the other way around. I think the Coen brothers came up
with the idea to use this kind of music in a film, and then
wrote the screenplay as an afterthought. Not that it really
matters, and it's all okay by me, because I liked the film,
the music is wonderful, and now there's a film that focuses
on the soundtrack called DOWN FROM THE MOUNTAIN.
In May 2000, all the artists involved in recording the
soundtrack got together and performed at Ryman Auditorium,
the original home of the Grand Old Opry, in Nashville, Tennessee.
The first 30 minutes of the film features brief shots of
the musicians hanging out backstage and rehearsing for the
show the day before, and the last hour of the film is the
actual concert footage. Many of the songs played live are
on the soundtrack, but others are not. It's a great cast
of knowns and unknowns, the knowns including the likes of
Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings,
and Ralph Stanley.
Both emceeing and playing during the concert is John Hartford.
Hartford, of course, was a well-known name in the bluegrass
and Nashville music scene throughout most of his life, and
DOWN FROM THE MOUINTAIN incidentally serves as a great tribute
to a talented musician. Hartford died from non-Hodgkin's
lymphoma only a few months ago, and watching him sing "Big
Rock Candy Mountain" or play the fiddle on "Indian
War Whoop" while Gillian Welch provides vocal accompaniment
is truly a bittersweet experience.
It's such a fabulous film, the only real pity with DOWN
FROM THE MOUNTAIN is its cursory examination of the rich
history behind much of the music. Only briefly in the film
is there but one reference to this as "miner's music"
but this barely does justice to this musical genre. For
instance, the story behind "I Am a Man of Constant
Sorrow" is in and of itself worthy of far more attention
than it receives in this film. It's one of those songs that
is so old, true ownership probably remains permanently lost,
as no one really remembers exactly who first started singing
it. However, the man credited with jotting down the lyrics
was Dick Burnett, and if he didn't write the song, he certainly
had good cause to sing it. In 1907 he was working as a coal
miner and one day heading home from work, he happened upon
a hobo near the railroad tracks. He was assaulted with an
iron bar, robbed, and left for dead. A few years later,
blind and picking a banjo around the Appalachians, he wrote
down these lyrics:
I am a man of constant sorrow.
I've seen trouble all my days...
Oh six long years I've been in trouble.
No pleasure here on earth I've found.
While in this world, I'm bound to ramble.
I have no friends to help me out.
His words remain a powerful elegy to the suffering and
poverty not only of one man, but as a way of life to many
people who found a brief moment of recognition or solace
in a song. Listening to this music today, these themes still
resonate strongly. Unfortunately, DOWN FROM THE MOUNTAIN
provides virtually no stories like this. While all of the
music performed here captures the ebullience and misfortunes
of daily life, and while I was captivated with the performances,
I still felt like something was missing.
It would be easy to take the film to task for this oversight.
This is, after all, a D.A. Pennebaker film, the man who
shot the famous Bob Dylan footage in DON'T LOOK BACK, and
is credited with creating the "fly on the wall"
feeling when watching a documentary. While that's Pennebaker's
style, and while this film certainly doesn't pretend to
be anything more than concert footage, I can't help thinking
how much better of a film this could have been had the history
been explored a little more deeply.
That doesn't mean one should skip the film, and certainly
Tool or Marilyn Manson fans need not bother, and even if
you swear you're an ardent Coen brothers fans you may not
dig this concert film. But for everyone else who has a shred
of good musical taste and loved the music as much, if not
more than, the quirky Coen brothers characters in O BROTHER,
WHERE ART THOU?, this is a must-see film.