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Down From The Mountain
Directors: D.A. Pennebaker, Nick Doob and Chris Hegedus
Producers: T. Bone Burnett, Ethan Coen and Joel Coen

Rating: out of 5

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 roots-type music.

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.

Nancy Semin

hybridCinema Ratings Guide:

Take a pal and pay full price for both tickets.

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