Reviews and notes
Success begets success, one good idea leads to another. The Coen brothers' notion of using producer T Bone Burnett to assemble a roster of modern and traditional bluegrass and mountain music stars to enliven their sendup of "The Odyssey" led to the score of O Brother, Where Art Thou?
becoming one of the surprise hits of the year, the nation's top-selling soundtrack, in fact, for weeks running. But that turned out to be only the beginning.
The Coens also decided to assemble many of these musicians, including Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, Gillian Welch and the patrician Ralph Stanley for a concert in Nashville's Ryman Auditorium. For fans of this kind of roots music, it was an event you would have given anything to attend. DOWN FROM THE MOUNTAIN
lets you do that and gives you terrific seats in the bargain.
That's because the Coens also decided to hire veteran documentarians Nick Doob, Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker to record the concert. If you love this music, you won't need any convincing about how enjoyable DOWN FROM THE MOUNTAIN
is; if you're not yet a fan, this film could be the convincer--even if it follows a conventional course.
As directed by cinematographer Doob and experienced directors Hegedus and Pennebaker, this film doesn't depart from the expected format of interviews, eavesdropping on backstage chatter (complicated by the inexplicable refusal to identify anyone) and concert footage.
But even the pro forma narrative sequences have pleasant surprises. There's Welch talking about the exact moment she discovered country music. And then there's Harris, who says she nearly drove off the road the first time she heard Stanley sing and who outs herself as a fanatical baseball fan who travels with a Sports Trax device to follow the games pitch by pitch. "Is this obsessive," she asks, "or what?"
Most of MOUNTAIN
involves the wonderful music. Lively, energetic, marked by ethereal harmonies, piercing solos and words Welch aptly characterizes as "the way people talk and the way nobody talks," these are songs you don't want to end.
Not a few of the concert's most memorable moments are melodies from the movie. Harris, Krauss and Welch, the music's three queens, do the self-described "lullaby and field holler" that is the show-stopping "(Didn't Leave) Nobody but the Baby." But topping even that are the young, earnest and gifted Peasall Sisters, Hannah, Leah and Sarah, doing an irresistible up-tempo version of the Carter Family's "In the Highways."
Equally entertaining are the more modern songs that never made it into the film. Welch and partner David Rawlings, harmonize beautifully on their wistful "I Want to Sing That Rock and Roll," and Chris Thomas King rips through his catchy "John Law Burned Down the Liquor Store." More poignant are the moments with the concert's obviously ailing master of ceremonies, John Hartford, who died of cancer after completing the film.
One after another, classic songs like "(Will There Be) Any Stars in My Crown," "Man of Constant Sorrow," "Keep on the Sunny Side of Life" "I'll Fly Away" get their moment. Then a somberly dressed Stanley enters, says, "Here comes the sad part now," and rips into his a capella version of "O Death." "This is stupendous," participant Welch says of the concert. Spectators will feel the same way.
- Kenneth Turan, LA Times
Weblink: NZ Film Festivals 2002
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