DOWN FROM THE MOUNTAIN

USA

2000

Directors: Nick Doob, Chris Hegedus, D.A. Pennebaker

Production co: Mike Zoss Productions/Pennebaker Hegedus Films

Producers: Bob Neuwirth, Frazer Pennebaker

Executive producers: T-Bone Burnett, Ethan Coen, Joel Coen

Cinematography: Joan Churchill, Jim Desmond, Nick Doob, Chris Hegedus, Bob Neuwirth, Jehane Noujaim, D.A. Pennebaker, John Paul Pennebaker

Editors: Nick Doob, D.A. Pennebaker

Sound: Alan Barker

98 mins

35mm

 

Down From the Mountain, which includes several songs not heard in O Brother or on its million-selling soundtrack album, may sound like a footnote to that film, but in some ways the reverse is true. It was the music, after all—a miscellany of blues, gospel, field hollers and bluegrass breakdowns—that lent emotional weight and historical resonance to the Coens' exuberantly silly pastiche of Southern folklore, Preston Sturges and Homer's Odyssey. And here the voices of Ralph Stanley, Alison Krauss, Chris Thomas King and a few dozen other keepers of the old-time flame are presented in their unadorned and timeless glory.

 

“If Down From the Mountain is a rich document of the latest folk revival, it also suggests that the music never really went away, and that the power of songs like ‘Angel Band’ and ‘I'll Fly Away’ endures after many decades and countless versions.

 

Press Materials

 

“As direct, unpretentious and stirring as the music it celebrates, this is the movie of the May 2000 Nashville concert which brought together the amazing array of “traditional” musicians who perform on the soundtrack of O Brother, Where Art Thou.

“A number of songs performed in Down From the Mountain, a documentary by D. A. Pennebaker, Chris Hegedus and Nick Doob, are about the promise of life after death. If you have any affection at all for traditional American music, the movie itself, which opens today at the Screening Room, is pretty close to heaven.

 

“The filmmakers, whose previous collaborations include Moon Over Broadway and The War Room, recorded the onstage and backstage doings at a concert last year in Nashville that brought together artists whose work was used in Joel and Ethan Coen's O Brother, Where Art Thou?

 

 

“Ms. Krauss joins Emmylou Harris and Gillian Welch in a haunting version of ‘(Didn't Leave) Nobody but the Baby,’ described by Ms. Harris as a combination lullaby and field holler stitched together especially for O Brother. Mr. King, a brilliant blues guitarist (who plays a similar role in the Coen brothers' film), performs an original song (with his partner, Colin Linden) that pays homage to the traditional form and updates it.

 

“Mr. Stanley, who was making records before many of the others were born and whose voice is a national treasure, serves as a beneficent patriarch, taking all the attention in stride and generously sharing the stage with the others. It's not possible to list them all, or to rank their performances. If you're like me, your head will be buzzing for a long time after the movie is over, with the ethereal harmonies of the Cox family singing ‘I Am Weary (Let Me Rest),’ the deep resonances of the Fairfield Four doing ‘Po Lazarus’ or the Peasall Sisters' endearingly off-key ‘In the Highways.’

 

“While the music speaks for itself, a few of the artists try to explain its appeal. ‘It's the way people talk, but it's the way no one talks,’ says Ms. Welch, capturing one of its many paradoxes. The music is as simple as a three-chord progression and as complex as Mike Compton's virtuoso mandolin licks. It's at once plain- spoken and otherworldly, grounded in a vanishing rural way of life and uncannily modern. How can songs so preoccupied with death, sin and heartache bring so much joy?

 

Down From the Mountain does strike an inadvertently poignant note. The master of ceremonies at the Nashville concert was John Hartford, the singer, fiddler, riverboat captain and raconteur who died on June 4. In his black vest and white shirt, his unruly gray hair topped by a battered black felt hat, Mr. Hartford looks as if he wandered onto the Grand Ole Opry stage out of a lost corner of the 19th century—a hellfire preacher or a confidence man. His stage patter is loopy and charming, his fiddle playing is terrifying and his bone-dry version of ‘The Big Rock Candy Mountain’ will make you believe that such a place exists..” — A.O. Scott, NY Times

“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’ ‘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