Directed by Nick Doob, Chris Hegedus, D.A. Pennebaker
Starring John Hartford, Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, Gillian Welch, The Fairfield Four
My Advice: Don't Miss It.
The Coen Brothers made a film, a version of Homer's The Odyssey that took place in rural Mississippi. That's the bad news, because the film was gorgeous to look at, but beyond that the film didn't work. The good news, though, is that it spawned an extraordinary soundtrack, featuring songs both classic and new performed by both recognizable artists and some you might not have heard of before. Now, get this: there's even better news. The Coen Brothers had the good sense to stage a concert at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium featuring the artists of their soundtrack. And luckily, they had even further good sense to both release a CD of said performance and an accompanying concert film/documentary.
At first glance, this is one helluva movie. It begins with the artists hanging out, rehearsing, goofing off, sitting around and comparing songs. Songs that did not appear in the performance segments of the film appear here in "rough" form, although when you hear the Fairfield Four (all five of them) working up "Lonesome Valley," the word "rough" isn't going to occur to you most likely. It's in this portion of the film that we get such amusing tidbits as Emmylou Harris' addiction to baseball and Holly Hunter talking with country/"old time mountain style" pioneer Dr. Ralph Stanley about being nervous.
Then the performance actually starts and it gives off the kind of discovering power that was inherent in such things as Buena Vista Social Club and Peter Gabriel's WOMAD tour--something powerful enough to get even the uninterested interested. John Hartford is the master of ceremonies, with delightfully dry humor--he's the uncle you wish to God you had had as a kid. And he can play that fiddle, too. The performances are all quite amazing and are worth the price of admission.
Which brings me to my own beefs with the film as a whole, although they're big ones. You notice I called this thing a "concert film/documentary". Well, it never gives us enough of either. The backstage bits are fascinating in their own rights, but they feel imposed upon by the performances. And vice versa. You get mostly one song from each group, and being as good as they are--that's a tease and a half. You want more. And in the documentary side, as well, in the beginning, there aren't any identifiers to tell us who these people are. Dr. Stanley gets introduced at a radio show, and I just happened to recognize Harris--everyone else, not a clue. I thought this was intentional--we don't see them as performers until they get on stage and Hartford introduces them--but David Rawlings gets a shave and a haircut and takes off his glasses between one half of the film and the next, so for two songs I wondered where the hell this guy came from.
Despite these shortcomings, what there is of the film is exemplary. Having already the soundtrack to the actual film, I'm going to go out and grab the disc of this performance--and I urge you to do the same.
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