There was a sly, running spoof throughout the Coen Brothers’ “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” of the ways in which “old-timey music” was being marketed and broadcast during the depths of the Depression, and in a very real way, the new docu “Down From the Mountain” is a part of that marketing. Even though it’s made by the venerable team of Nick Doob, Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker, who usually burrow into their subject and surface with fascinating observations, pic is little more than a recording of a March 2000 benefit concert (for the new Country Hall of Fame & Museum) at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium featuring music and musicians included in the “O Brother” soundtrack. That recording’s smash success on the charts doubtless charted the way for a specialized theatrical run, but the real marketing will be in ancillary, when fans can play it alongside their CD.
Since the filmed concert section clocks in at 70 minutes, there theoretically was plenty of time to explain the roots and development of old-timey, or bluegrass, music. But the film feels rushed, squeezing in as many brief pre-concert moments with as many musicians as possible, leaving mere impressions and little more. Dr. Ralph Stanley, a kind of bluegrass patriarch, is asked by Nashville radio personality Hairl Hensley about the music; all that’s left here of his comments is the idea that the style wasn’t distinguished from the general category of country until 1965, and that his kind of deep-throated singing is “born and bred … way back in the hills of Virginia.”
Before the music takes over, the film inserts a few bits of charm, such as Emmylou Harris excitedly following the latest Major League Baseball scores; singer-guitarist Gillian Welch recalling how she first heard bluegrass while living in a Santa Cruz commune; and master fiddler and show emcee John Hartford (who died of cancer shortly after the concert) describing his Mark Twain-like days as a riverboat captain.
The concert itself tells us more about the music’s identity. It is wide-ranging, covering chain-gang tunes like “Po’ Lazarus,” sung by the Fairfield Four (actually five on stage); funny ditties like Hartford favorites “Big Rock Candy Mountain” and “Hogfoot”; and a huge portion of religious songs, from “(Will There Be Any) Stars in My Crown” (sung by the Cox Family) to “Down to the River to Pray,” part of a hypnotic baptism scene in “O Brother” but given an unmoving reading here by Alison Kraus and the First Baptist Church Choir of White House, Tenn. The blues makes a brief appearance thanks to slide guitarists Chris Thomas King and Colin Linden.
If there’s a star who emerges, it’s Welch, who does the most ancient-sounding tune — a yodeling “Indian War Whoop” with Hartford — and the most contempo material, “My Dear Someone” and “I Want to Sing That Rock and Roll,” with partner David Rawlings.
One of several matters that remain obscure is why nice Jewish boys from Minnesota like the Coens connected with this deep Southern music in the first place; but in this film they exec produced, they remain mute.