- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 11, 2001

"Down From the Mountain," a country-music performance documentary booked exclusively at the Cinema Arts in Fairfax, preserves entertainment from a concert staged in Nashville's Ryman Auditorium on May 24, 2000.
The performers were musicians who had contributed songs to the soundtrack of "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" the picaresque Depression-era comedy done by the team of Joel and Ethan Coen.
When "O Brother" was released last Christmas, the soundtrack appeared to have a much better chance of standing the test of time. The film from the concert a benefit for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum reinforces that impression.
Shot on digital video by a crew organized by the veteran documentary associates D.A. Pennebaker, Chris Hegedus (also Mrs. Pennebaker) and Nick Doob, the film appears to be a promotional supplement for the movie. But its release six months after the picture by a small distributor, Cowboy Booking International confuses that issue.
Whoever lighted the set did no favors for performers or camera crew. The dominant backdrop vista is a bank of church windows, but they're bathed in Popsicle shades of blue, red and purple that might be better suited to a strip club.
Glimpses of the proud producers recur when audience reaction shots are inserted. Star sightings of a somewhat free-floating nature also are evident, notably of Billy Bob Thornton. An early Coen leading lady, Holly Hunter, does a brief introductory gig, after which one of the headliners, the late John Hartford, takes over as master of ceremonies. At that point, the movie becomes more informative because Mr. Hartford identifies the participants.
Evidently, this was one of his last public appearances before succumbing to cancer. His association with Glen Campbell on network television in the late 1960s and early 1970s (he composed Mr. Campbell's theme song, "Gentle on My Mind") made Mr. Hartford something of a national fixture, not to mention a credible link between traditional country balladeers and pop vocalists.
Nothing he does on this occasion is quite as endearing as the fiddle recessional he begins while a choir that accompanied Alison Krauss files offstage.
Although Emmylou Harris probably is better known than the other women in the program, people who remain a bit tardy about discovering Miss Krauss or Suzanne Cox of the Cox Family may be grateful for the wake-up calls in "Down From the Mountain." Miss Harris, Miss Krauss and Gillian Welch are reunited for the sirens' song from the movie, "Didn't Leave Nobody but the Baby."
Gene Wyatt, a knowledgeable movie reviewer and colleague of mine from Nashville, Tenn., says the film's title originates with a remark by Ralph Stanley, the senior member of the Ryman ensemble. He once spoke of country music coming "down from the mountain" to make an impact on the Nashville recordng industry and nation at large.
Mr. Stanley seems to have favored such homely descriptions as "plain-people music" and "old-timey mountain music" before the term "bluegrass" caught on, with Mr. Stanley and the late Bill Monroe as defining voices.
Mr. Stanley closes the show with a spellbinding rendition of "O Death," although the end credits retrieve Miss Krauss and Miss welch for a duet of "I'll Fly Away."
From time to time, the lyrical appeal of this collection almost persuades you that you've sprouted celestial wings.

TITLE: "Down From the Mountain," at Cinema Arts in Fairfax
RATING: No MPAA rating (music concert documentary without fictional content; no objectionable material)
CREDITS: Directed by Nick Doob, Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker. Photography by Joan Churchill, Jim Desmond, Mr. Doob, Miss Hegedus, Bob Neuwirth, Jehane Noujaim, Mr. Pennebaker and John Paul Pennebaker. Alan Barker is the documentary sound coordinator.
RUNNING TIME: 98 minutes


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