SouthEastern Bluegrass Association

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"O Brother, Where Art Thou?"

Record & Movie Review By Lee Taylor

Editor's Note: The soundtrack is Mercury 088 170-069-2)

ArtworkLate December / early January brought with it one of the most eagerly anticipated events affecting the bluegrass and old-time country music world in quite some time, the general release of the new Coen brothers movie, "O Brother, Where Art Thou?

The "buzz" about this movie among the insiders in the bluegrass scene has been going on for some time now, and getting stronger and more widespread as the release date approached. What the fuss is all about is this: not since "Bonnie & Clyde" or "Deliverance" has bluegrass music been closely associated with such a mass-media event. In many ways, this is even more exciting. In the previous movies, the tie-in was for a single bluegrass song used in the movie. In the case of "O Brother", in many ways, bluegrass and old-time country music IS the movie. The whole plot is tied to the music, and there are so many whole complete songs used in the movie that it is almost a musical.

"O Brother" is the story of Ulysses Everett McGill, a slick-talking, ne'er-do-well refugee from a 1937 Mississippi chain gang, and his dim-witted compatriots. Based loosely on Homer's Odyssey, the story covers their quest to acquire a fabulous treasure and to restore some sense of order to their misdirected lives. Along the way, they are set upon by the Sirens, the Cyclops, and the KKK. The movie features George Clooney in the starring role, John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson as the woebegone sidekicks, and a host of great supporting characters, including John Goodman, Holly Hunter, and Charles Durning. More important to the readers of this article are all the appearances of various and assorted bluegrass and related music figures throughout the course of the movie. The Cox Family, The Whites, Gillian Welch, Dan Tyminski, Ron Block, David Holt, Ed Snodderly, and a bunch of others all make on-screen appearances at some point in the film.

The music really does permeate the basic structure of the movie, though. It's my understanding that all the music for the movie was actually recorded and finished before a single frame of film was shot; then the movie was put together around the music. And the music is really GOOD. On screen George Clooney lip-syncs to Dan Tyminski doing two killer versions of "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow", one with just Dan's guitar, and another with a full band featuring Ron Block, Barry Bailes, Stuart Duncan, and Mike Compton. Alison Krauss, with all-star back up vocals, does a version of "Down to the River to Pray" that is central to the movie and just gorgeous. Alison again, along with Emmylou Harris and Gilliam Welch, do a stunning bluesy trio number "Didn't Leave Nothing But the Baby", which provides the musical score to the Siren "attack". The Whites perform the best version of "Keep On the Sunny Side" that I've heard since the Carter Family, aided by some wonderfully low-key dobro from Jerry Douglas, and Ralph Stanley's "O Death" is the theme to the most bizarre moment of the whole movie, with a choreographed Klan rally and lynching the includes a not-so-subtle cinematic quote from "The Wizard of Oz".

The Coen Brothers are masters of satire and send-up. While I am sure that in today's politically correct feeding frenzy there will be people who will find something in this movie to be offended by, I found nothing serious or mean-spirited at all. The film is full of Southern stereotypes, so much so that at times it is almost a cartoon, but there is nothing vicious or hurtful that I could see. I found the movie to be funny on several different levels, from slapstick to arcane literary references, and I suspect that it is one of those movies in which repeated viewings will turn up stuff I missed the first time through. I felt that George Clooney pretty much put on his character and wore it like a well-tailored suit, and that Nelson and Turturro turned what could have been just "character" parts into some of the best moments of the film.

In addition to the stunning soundtrack, I also found the film to be visually quite beautiful. Although modern and in color, somehow it still looks "period". There is a hot, dry look to some of the exteriors that you can almost feel, and there is a golden, pastel effect to the color that almost makes the whole movie look like a 50 year old drugstore window display.

The soundtrack CD features all the cuts I mention above, plus complete recordings of lots of things that were used as incidental music in the movie, including some great singing and guitar work from Norman Blake, and a couple of "period" recordings, "Mac" McClintock's recording of "The Big Rock Candy Mountain" and a Stanley Brothers recording of "Angel Band". Additionally there is gut-level, soul stirring black gospel from the Fairfield Four and James Carter and the Prisoners. There's also a nice "data" section on the CD, including an "O Brother" screensaver, web links, and a track player for the audio tracks. The packaging is great and there is a really nice four color booklet with very complete credits and even a promotional blurb for the other recordings of all the artists on the soundtrack.

Overall, the soundtrack has a simple beauty to it that is hard to explain. A lot of the tunes are old and well worn, and the performances aren't flashy or "in your face", but there is a basic elegance to the music that makes you want leave it in the CD player. As the foundation for the movie, the music alone will probably draw me back to see it again, or at least be the first in line to buy the video or DVD when it comes out.


This review was originally published in the February 2001 issue of THE SEBA BREAKDOWN, SEBA's award-winning newsletter.

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