Down From The Mountain Directed by Nick Dool, Chris Hegedus, and D.A. Pennebaker
At this point the commercial success of O Brother, Wherea Art Thou? is bound to be condemned in some corners as a marketing juggernaut, instead of honored as the happy accident it has been. But back on May 24, 2000, when contributors to the film’s soundtrack convened on the unadorned Ryman Auditorium stage before the movie had even been released, it was plainly and simply about the music.
D.A. Pennebaker and his collaborators carried cameras through the dark spots and backstage that night to produce this edited document. Naturally it will spawn a soundtrack album, comprised — as is the film — of numbers omitted from O Brother. And Down From The Mountain, too, is quite properly about the music.
Two-thirds of the film is a thoroughly pleasant recap of the concert itself, a pleasure that was more generally replicated in mid-June as some participants gathered for a similar concert at Carnegie Hall in New York City. The first third, filmed during the day’s rehearsals, is offered as documentary. The music is first-rate throughout, validating memory; the documentary is less compelling.
The cameras add touches just a trace unexpected. Their access backstage during rehearsals, casual banter (who knew Emmylou Harris was a baseball junkie?), and that fragile moment just before performance does much to capture the informal joy of creation, and the virtuosity of the players.
But it is the tight shots of performance that are most revealing. Some portion of magic is captured in the instant’s smile shared by the Cox Family during close harmony, in the Peasall Sisters’ alternating nerves and composure, and especially in Gillian Welch’s eyes as she follows John Hartford’s fiddle during “Indian War Whoop”.
That last suggests both the strength of film, and its difference, for the song seems truncated on screen, a condensed version of what one saw live. And so — film being a medium of art and artifice, as is music — one trades the logic of the camera for the intimacy it offers.
The documentary segments of the film seek to establish — and ultimately abandon — two narrative threads, each in counterpoint to the other. It opens with a title proclaiming, “Ralph Stanley came down from the mountains to Nashville…” and follows that language with a list of performers as the camera follows his limousine in a loving paean to the neighborhood surrounding the Ryman.
For a brief moment the camera captures Stanley looking out the window in wonder, as if he’d hadn’t trod these familiar streets for decades. The cinematic myth, then, is that Ralph Stanley has come down from the mountains and brought his friends to the Ryman, to the big city. And, by extension, that bluegrass — the geography of Bill Monroe’s upbringing (and the ambition of his vision) notwithstanding — is plain ol’ mountain music.
The impulse to frame Ralph Stanley as a kind of narrator (including brief black-and-white footage of the Stanley Brothers) largely disappears once MC John Hartford takes over the live show, and only reappears during Stanley’s film-ending performance.
The second theme also originates with Stanley. Interviewed live on WSM radio by DJ Hairl Hensley, Stanley argues that one must be born in the deep hills where he comes from, and raised with the music, to sing it properly. This thesis is teased often and subtly by subsequent interviews with the evening’s performers, who come from all over and whose authenticity may be more fairly evaluated as they play.
And, of course, the music wins out. As always.