Down From The Mountain Review
The story:We all knew that the Coens loved their soundtracks - The Big Lebowski was arguably one of the best soundtracks put together in the 90s mostly thanks to the encyclopedic genius of T-Bone Burnett so unsurprisingly with their followup, Oh Brother where art thou, they once again worked with T-Bone and the result became a multi-platinum record. Before the film was released, the Coens had the excellent idea of organising a concert of the soundtrack in the Ryman Auditorium (Nashville, Tennessee) and had the even better idea to get the legendary documentary maker D.A. Pennebaker to film the entire proceedings. The assembled lineup for fans such as myself is the equivalent of a dream come true, with the old stars of the genre performing alongside the young guard who are set to preserve and embellish this beautiful music.
The film is filmed in Pennebaker's trademark "fly-on-the-wall" style - the characters seem quite oblivious to the fact they're being filmed and act with the camera as they'd interact with a normal person. The film starts with the preparations and the dress-rehearsal the day before the concert with Pennebaker filing the musicians relaxing, arranging and performing the songs as well as talking about various things such as Emmylou Harris' passion for Baseball to stagefright. After about 25 minutes of this, we get to the concert with the late John Hartford acting as MC and Holly Hunter introducing the show. The concert filming is not as conservative as one would expect given the style (although we are miles away from MTV!) with quite a few cameras being used simultaneously and quite a bit of cutting backstage - despite this, the cinematography thankfully doesn't get in the way but rather enlivens the experience giving a clear zest and vigour. Of course, the music itself is a matter of taste and given the lukewarm interest there is for country music in the UK, one can only hope that people will start to see that there is more to it than line-dancing and 5-gallon hats. Although probably not as mesmerising in style as Buena Vista Social Club nor as groundbreaking as Pennebaker's own Dylan documentary (Don't look back), this is still a very good film of (and around) a concert which is well worth the detour for die-hard fans and neophytes alike.
The image:The image is full frame which as far as I can make out is the correct format given that it was filmed on digital video and the framing doesn't seem too claustrophobic. Still the R1 release is supposed to be widescreen so I'm not 100% sure of this one. As for the image quality, it's what one can expect from the digital video medium: nowhere near as sharp and precise as celluloid but still nice to look at and with a more "real" feel to it. The colours scream a little at times which in come ways is a blessing given the bland colour spectrum some DV recorded films have. As for artifacting, I didn't see any that was not already in the original medium. So an adequate transfer given the shortcomings of the original material.
The sound:The R2 version gets a stereo mix whereas the R1 version gets a 5.1 soundtrack as well... It remains to be proven whether or not the concert will really sound better with a 5.1 remix as it was recorded only with a few mikes placed in front of the musicians singers (showing MTV what unplugged really should be!). Remixing it to 5.1 seems to defeat the purposefully low-tech nature of the venture and as the stereo mix seems to be based on the original mix, I'm not really complaining. It's nice and clear - you can really hear each instrument being plucked but that's also thanks to the lack of any percussion instrument!
The menus: Top stuff: based upon concert posters with footage from the concert in the background and a complete live version of "Man of Constant Sorrow" playing. You can choose to skip to any song featured in the film which is very good extra - also you can choose to either start at the beginning of the film or start at the beginning of the concert making these menus well thought out and executed.
The extras:Nothing at all on the disc - not even the theatrical trailer! Still we do get a nice little booklet with a foreword by the Coens and a two pages of background to the concert and the music written by Jay Orr which in part makes up for the total lack of extras.
- Po Lazarus -- Fairfield Four
- Big Rock Candy Mountain -- John Hartford
- Blue and Lonesome -- Alison Krauss & Union Station
- Green Pastures -- Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch & David Rawlings
- Indian War Whoop -- Gillian Welch & John Hartford
- (Didn't Leave) Nobody But the Baby -- Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris & Gillian Welch
- John law Burned Down the Liquor Sto' -- Chris Thomas King & Colin Linden
- I am Weary (Let Me Rest) -- The Cox Family
- (Will There Be Any) Stars In My Crown -- The Cox Family
- In the Highway -- The Peasall Sisters
- Down to the River to Pray -- Alison Krauss & The First Baptist Church Choir of Whitehouse, Tennessee
- Violin Solo -- John Hartford
- My Dear Someone -- Gillian Welch & David Rawlings
- I Want to Sing That Rock 'n' Roll -- Gillian Welch & David Rawlings
- Keep on the Sunny Side of Life -- The Whites
- Hogfoot -- John Hartford
- O Death -- Ralph Stanley
- Angel Band - Company
- I'll Fly Away -- Alison Krauss & Gillian Welch
Conclusions:Given the recent Grammy award given to the soundtrack, this DVD could be another opportunity to have another look into the world of folk/mountain/country music. The DVD, although extra bereft, is not a cheap looking effort thanks to the delightful menu conception and the liner notes. Well worth investigating...