September 6, 2001

Cornell Cinema

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In the past, the standard music documentary chronicled an established musician or group during a few nights of a concert tour, thereby exposing audiences to a glimpse of the backstage world of these music celebrities. The thrill of watching Radiohead in Meeting People is Easy or Madonna in Truth or Dare is only partly the chance to experience a recording of their music. Rather, many people just want a feature length “Behind the Music”. Perhaps it was the success of Wim Wenders’ Buena Vista Social Club that forever changed the music documentary genre and showed that audiences were not just willing, but excited, to explore new kinds of music and musicians of whom they had never heard before. While Down From the Mountain may not be as ambitious as Buena Vista Social Club, its thorough collection of music is equally pleasurable.

Down from the Mountain is a companion piece to the Coen Brothers’ film O Brother, Where Art Thou? It isn’t necessary to see that film beforehand, but having seen it makes this documentary all the more nostalgic. O Brother Where Art Thou? is a musical loosely based on Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey, but set in the South during the Depression. Because almost every scene contains traditional bluegrass, blue,s or country music, the songs and the score are as integral to the film as the acting, as the comedic dialogue. Judging by the economic success of the soundtrack, (even I, someone who has never listened to this kind of music before, surprised myself by buying the soundtrack the day after seeing the film) there are people curious about this revival of authentic bluegrass.

The documentary opens with shots of Nashville and proceeds to focus on casual interviews with the musicians. They talk about their own experiences with music, specifically, the ways they became involved in this particular project. While the paths that have led these performers to this moment are disparate, the organic way the community has formed seems as simple as the harmonies their voices create. Performing, singing, or playing does not seem like a job for these artists so much as a pasttime, a hobby or a fact of life. Many of the groups, like The Cox Family, The Peasall Sisters, The Stanley Brothers, and The Whites, are family members. And while they are not related, the seasoned artists like Emmylou Harris and Alison Krauss show a fondness for the newer, emerging talent as though they were younger siblings.

Even though the majority of the film is simply a live recording of the concert where all these musicians came together one spring night last year at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, the anthropological value of the documentary is certainly not lost on veteran directors Chris Hegedus, and Nick Doob. When the audience is completely still and silent during renditions of “Didn’t Leave Nobody but the Baby” or “Indian War Whoop” the profound cultural importance of this music is at once obvious and mysterious to those who are not usually exposed to it. As one musician notes, the music is seemingly about the everyday, but when one thinks about it, or listens discerningly, it can be quite heavy and somber.

Archived article by Diana Lind