Down From the Mountain

Down From the Mountain

2000, NR, 98 min. Directed by D.A. Pennebaker, Chris Hegedus, Nick Doob. Starring Holly Hunter, David Rawlings, Colin Linden, Chris Thomas King, John Hartford, Gillian Welch, Alison Krauss, Ralph Stanley, Emmylou Harris.

REVIEWED By Marrit Ingman, Fri., Aug. 24, 2001

Bluegrass fans should have few complaints about this stellar concert film, which unites the musical talent from O Brother, Where Art Thou? in a group performance recorded live at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium in May 2000. The spectacle has what Welch describes as an “old-timey showtime” feel. A crowd-pleaser at this year's SXSW, the film is intimate and rich, showcasing some truly transcendent moments of effortless musicianship and down-home soul. Yet it's also thinner than you might expect from legendary documentarian Pennebaker (working here with Doob and wife and longtime collaborator Hegedus), deservedly noted for more probing fare (among them rock-doc staples like Don't Look Back and Monterey Pop). While Pennebaker usually exercises a light hand, relying on skillful editing to shape and contextualize his subject matter, the filmmakers' approach here is even more hands-off: Film the music and let it speak for itself. Certainly, the performance scenes are compelling, from the a cappella gospel of the Fairfield Four (actually a quintet, but who's counting?) to the marvelous finale, which brings out the whole roster of performers to sing with Stanley, the elder bluegrass statesman whose “high lonesome” voice appears throughout the O Brother soundtrack. It's almost pointless to single out individual performances; there's not a lemon in the bunch. Fiddling troubadour (and riverboat captain) Hartford emcees the event with bonhomie and contributes a lovely rendition of “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” moments that seem all the more poignant since Hartford's death in June. Elsewhere, Krauss, Welch, and Harris spellbind the audience (which conspicuously contains Billy Bob Thornton) with “(Didn't Leave) Nobody but the Baby,” and O Brother co-star King shines on the blues number “John Law Burned Down the Liquor Store.” Yet it's no disparagement to the music to say that some of the best moments take place offstage, when the cameras linger on rehearsals and conversations backstage. Minutes before the Cox Family performs, paterfamilias Willard goes missing -- and is discovered in a hallway, regaling Stanley with the tale of a giant alligator discovered by the local law. Harris is a delight in her candid scenes, compulsively checking her sports scores (“God gave us baseball”) and extemporaneously singing the title song from her Red Dirt Girl album. Moments like these are too infrequent for Down From the Mountain to be a fully realized film in its own right. It seems to have been imagined as a more of a companion piece to O Brother, a decision which is probably unfortunate, since Pennebaker, Hegedus, and Doob could be trusted to tell the story of American bluegrass music, with Stanley as their focal point.

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READ MORE
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KEYWORDS FOR THIS FILM

Down From the Mountain, D.A. Pennebaker, Chris Hegedus, Nick Doob, Holly Hunter, David Rawlings, Colin Linden, Chris Thomas King, John Hartford, Gillian Welch, Alison Krauss, Ralph Stanley, Emmylou Harris

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