Record Review - 2 January 20 2001

Music has been integral to films in the modern era, and there are landmarks along the way that demonstrate how the power of a good soundtrack can make even a mediocre movie successful. Most of the time film music that crosses over into popular consciousness tends to be contemporary and contrived. Sometimes, however, a period film uses archaic and traditional music in such a unique way that the music virtually drives the story, such as in the new Coen Brothers movie, O Brother, Where Art Thou?
The film is a humorous retelling of The Odyssey, set in the mid-'30s and starring George Clooney. Virtually every scene includes music from the era, performed by current bluegrass, folk, country, blues, gospel and Americana artists. Two exceptions open the soundtrack CD: Harry Carter and the Prisoners performing "Oh Lazarus" in a 1959 Alan Lomax field recording and Harry McLintock's 1928 recording of "Big Rock Candy Mountain." From there, though, performers such as Norman Blake, Allison Krauss, Emmylou Harris, the Fairfield Four, Ralph Stanley and John Hartford play and sing classic songs from the era. There is a purity, honesty and innocence rarely heard in contemporary culture in tunes such as the Carter Family's "Keep on the Sunny Side" (performed here by the Whites) and "I'll Fly Away," done beautifully by Allison Krauss and Gillian Welch. Particularly moving is Ralph Stanley's a cappella version of "Oh Death," which is as haunting as any gospel song ever recorded.
Produced by T Bone Burnett, O Brother's music has a stark, acoustic sound throughout, crisp as Smoky Mountain air and rich with authenticity. The performances are genuine and flawlessly capture the essence of the era. One can only hope that the film itself can match the quality of the music.