Codirectors D.A. Pennebaker (Don't Look Back, Monterey Pop), wife Chris Hegedus (startup.com) and Nick Doob went to Nashville in May of last year to record a concert at the Ryman Auditorium, where artists on the O Brother soundtrack gathered for a one-off showcase. But Down From the Mountain is really the cinematic equivalent of a revival, both in the religious sense (every song here is, more or less, about life, death and redemption in the afterlife) and in the musical sense (one performer has no idea what music supervisor T Bone Burnett means when he tells him to play a song more "rock and roll"). It's the most uplifting movie of a numbing year -- a feel-good film full of songs about feeling god-awful.
"The lonesome voice is born and bred into you," insists 74-year-old Ralph Stanley, whose music was first broadcast from a Virginia radio station in 1946. Stanley appears only in the film's opening and closing moments, but his presence hovers over its entire 98-minute length like a ghost with a pulse. Its his desolate version of "Man of Constant Sorrow" (performed in O Brother by Union Station's Dan Tyminski and lip-synched by George Clooney) that opens the film, and he closes it with the harrowing a cappella "O Death," in which he begs the reaper to let him live another year. Stanley is the bluegrass purist's touchstone, and he's treated here with the reverence due a self-proclaimed doctor of mountain music.
Yet these songs are all present tense, not just scratched vestiges meant to linger on a collector's shelf or in a museum's Plexiglas display cases. When Harris, Welch and Krauss perform "Didn't Leave Nothing but the Baby" -- the song of the sirens in O Brother, introduced here by a chuckling Welch as a "lullaby and a field holler" -- it's striking and chilling, an invitation to the everlasting slumber.
There are plenty of stirring moments, but the most definitive performance in the film may be Welch and David Rawlings' original "I Want to Sing That Rock and Roll," also found on Welch's just-released album Time (The Revelator). It's ironic and desperate at the same time, the plaintive cry of the old-timer afraid of being "drowned out" by the ruckus and the defiant shout of the comer looking to "'lec-tree-fy my soul." It's about life and the afterlife; it's about promise and pain; and it's about how all of it is available in the hollow of an old guitar. "I wanna reach that glory land," Welch sings, like a woman already there. The audience can't help but want to take her hand and follow along.