Even those who were less than thrilled by the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? had a kind word for the sound track, an assemblage of early folk, blues and related musics put together by veteran producer (and cult musician) T-Bone Burnett. The sound track was like Frances McDormand in Fargo — an unexpected humanizing element in the Brothers’ usual whirlpool of inspired invention and glib smart-assery. Rather than depend entirely on archival recordings, Burnett enlisted some of the best living practitioners of the various forms and the resulting sound track CD was a big hit.
Down from the Mountain, a documentary by Nick Doob, Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker, is a film record of the concert given by many of the Brothers’ performers in Nashville on May 24, 2000. Though maybe 25 or so of the movie’s 98 minutes consist of backstage chat, rehearsals and candid shots of the performers waiting to go on, the main thing here is the music and in such a film (or such a concert — or any concert for that matter) range and pacing is important. Mountain succeeds on both points.
Opening with a dramatic a cappella gospel number by the Fairfield Four, the feeling of unforced immediacy rarely flags — from bluegrass diva Gillian Welch’s off-the-cuff duet with MC John Hartford (who died last May and looks here to be on his last legs, though that was his usual appearance) on “Indian War Whoop,” through an exquisite rendering of “(Didn’t Leave) Nobody but the Baby” by Welch, Emmylou Harris and Alison Krauss, to the climactic “O Death” by Ralph Stanley, whose gravelly, querulous voice gives the song a primal heft.
Throw in lesser-known luminaries such as the Cox Family and the Whites and you have a good sampling of musical Americana; emotionally direct, plain-spoken, deeply soulful.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward, Detroit), Friday through Sunday. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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