There is perhaps no explanation for why the soundtrack to Joel and Ethan Coen's O Brother, Where Art Thou?, crammed full of bluegrass standards, chain-gang echoes and lullaby melodies, has sold almost 2 million copies and sat near the top of the country charts for months. The disc has received no radio play--save, perhaps, on public radio late at night--and its biggest names (Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, Alison Krauss and Ralph Stanley) are star attractions whose albums rarely go gold, much less prance around in platinum jewelry. Welch, trapped backstage by a documentarian's camera, tries in Down From the Mountain to explain the appeal, but even the young practitioner of old-time roots music is stymied: "The songs are seemingly everyday, but heavy," says the woman born not atop Appalachian mountaintops but in Beverly Hills to parents who worked on The Carol Burnett Show. "It's the way everybody talks, but the way no one talks." So she leaves it to her performances to make her case for her, and hers is a most eloquent and persuasive argument for the appeal of such timeless music. One has a hard time finding fault with music that can elicit a smile and a teardrop at the exact same moment.
Co-directors D.A. Pennebaker (Dont Look Back, Monterey Pop), wife Chris Hegedus (startup.com) and Nick Doob went to Nashville in May of last year to record a concert at the Ryman Auditorium, where artists on the O Brother soundtrack gathered for a one-off showcase. But Down From the Mountain is no more a concert film than The Last Waltz or Stop Making Sense; never do you feel as though there's a screen separating audience from performer. It's the cinematic equivalent of a revival, both in the religious sense (every song here is, more or less, about life, death and redemption in the afterlife) and in the musical sense (one performer has no idea what music supervisor T Bone Burnett means when he tells him to play a song more "rock and roll"). It's the most uplifting film of a numbing year--a feel-good film full of songs about feeling god-awful.
The filmmakers trolled backstage looking for anecdotes and color and found Emmylou Harris, as striking as any movie star, obsessively glued to her Motorola SportsTrax device, checking on baseball games in progress. "God gave us baseball," she insists during a 3-2 count. They sit in on rehearsals and capture the camaraderie among musicians playing antiquated music in the 21st century; where else but here could one find a fiddler and riverboat captain (the late John Hartford, who looks like a backwoods Tom Waits)? And they trailed Ralph Stanley from limo to radio station, as the veteran banjo picker likewise tried to put into words what only music can describe.
"The lonesome voice is born and bred into you," insists the 74-year-old claw-hammer icon, whose music was first broadcast from a Virginia radio station in 1946. Stanley appears only in the film's opening and closing moments, but his presence hovers over the entire 98-minute-long film like a ghost with a pulse. It's his desolate version of "Man of Constant Sorrow," performed in the film by Union Station's Dan Tyminski and lip-synched by George Clooney, that opens the film, and he closes it with the harrowing a cappella "O Death," in which he begs the reaper to let him live another year. Stanley is the bluegrass purist's touchstone, and he's treated here with the reverence due a self-proclaimed doctor of mountain music.
The film is chaotic and scattered during its opening moments; it's not until the concert, well into the film, that the musicians are identified by Hartford, who also serves as emcee. But the filmmakers take it on faith (appropriate of the music, perhaps) that theirs is an audience familiar with The Cox Family, the Peasall Sisters, The Whites and the Fairfield Four as to have no need of introduction. Besides, the performers are less important than the performances, which aren't shackled by sacred tradition. These songs are all present tense, not just scratched vestiges meant to linger on a collector's shelf or behind a museum's Plexiglas display cases. When Harris, Welch and Krauss perform "Didn't Leave Nothing But the Baby"--the song of the sirens in O Brother, introduced here by a chuckling Welch as a "lullaby and a field holler"--it's striking and chilling, an invitation to the everlasting slumber. And the Fairfield Four's rousing take on "Po Lazarus" brings grins of joy and shrugs of shame; the specter of the chain gang lingers.
There are plenty of stirring moments: Krauss leading a choir "Down to the River to Pray"; the Peasall Sisters chirping out a slightly off-key version of "In the Highways"; Chris Thomas King and Colin Linden's slide-guitar duel on "Burning Down the Liquor Store"; Hartford's giddy take on the chestnut "Big Rock Candy Mountain"; any time Welch, Harris and Krauss--a holy trinity indeed--sing together or separately. But aside from Stanley's "O Death," the most definitive performance in the film may be Welch and David Rawlings' original "I Want to Sing That Rock and Roll," also found on Welch's just-released album Time (The Revelator). Reminiscent of any Everly (or Louvin) Brothers hit, it just may be the song to explain a youngster's infatuation with ancient melodies. It's perhaps ironic and desperate at the same time, the plaintive cry of the old-timer afraid of being "drowned out" by the ruckus and the defiant shout of the comer looking to "'lec-tree-fy my soul." It's about life and the afterlife, it's about promise and pain, and it's about how all of it's available in the hollow of an old guitar.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.