Posted by: gdevi | April 12, 2011

Review: Down From the Mountain (2000)

I recently read about Pennebaker’s documentary filming the live performance of the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack in my meandering readings on Coen brothers and their films; I have been a fan for some time now. This documentary is addictive; I saw it twice in one sitting. D watched it with me too. And this on a Tuesday evening. But such indulgence is completely justified. Pennebaker is very good at finding good subjects to film and then let them work in peace. The result is a kind of stylized waiting; there is none of the usual documentary promise that we are going to get “inside” someone or something or that we are going to get at the “root” of something or someone etc; even the montages are spatial, rather than temporal in structure and effect. The director knows no more than we do. This patience pays off well in Down From the Mountain; it is a sterling collection of live performances of the musicians and the songs that made the soundtrack of the Coen Brothers film. (There are brief glimpses of the Coen Brothers in the audience at the Ryman Theatre, as well as a few quiet shots of Harry Dean Stanton!) It is also an emphatic glimpse into the gospel side of country music; not really bluegrass, but more the real mountain songs heavy with the awareness of mortality, of surrender to divine presence, one might even say, a joyful anticipation of life eternal. It is hard not to sing along.

I like the soundtrack but I did not really know anything about any of these musicians until today, except Ralph Stanley (I like the Stanley Brothers a lot) and John Hartford and that is only because one of the first things D. learned to play was “Big Rock Candy Mountain” as arranged by John Hartford.  What a great great musician; he wears double hat as MC and performer on this film. Isn’t that the most beautiful performance of Big Rock Candy Mountain or what, we asked each other. Other unforgettable performances include EmmyLou Harris singing the traditional Green Pastures with two musicians that I am really noticing for the first time, a brilliant guitarist David Rawlings and a wonderful singer Gillian Welch; listening to these three people sing harmonies, it suddenly struck me with even greater force than usual that this is what I have always wanted to do in my life. To sing songs like this. Maybe when D. is older I will join a gospel choir. The Peasall sisters–three young girls–sang harmonies on one of my favorite favorite songs — “In the Highways.” It is such a wonderful song to sing. Almost as wonderful as “I’ll Fly Away.” Several times I had tears in my eyes watching this film; Pennebaker completely unbrokers these performances; the Fairfield Four singing “Po’ Lazarus” — the sheer love and understanding these musicians have of this gospel music gives you goosebumps. You can hear where rock music came from in this song.

The film opens with Ralph Stanley arriving at a radio station in Nashville–I forget the name now–and being introduced as the newest member of the Grand Ole Opry. Stanley sings “O Death” and “Angel Band” in his distinctive pulpit rendering. If Robert Duvall makes another country music film, then he should play Ralph Stanley! These are all memorable performances–the Cox family, the Whites, Hartford on the fiddle with Man of Constant Sorrow, Blue and Lonesome and I’ll Fly Away by Alison Kraus and her band, and a few other traditional tunes. What a treat, honestly!

I am sure I will be watching this film again; ; light, sweet, and loving.


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