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[Photo: Cowboy Booking International]
From left, David Rawlings, Emmylou Harris and Gillian Welch in Down From the Mountain.


© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 6, 2001

Heritage of bluegrass remains green

Down From the Mountain (Not rated, probably PG) (98 min.) -- The soundtrack to Joel and Ethan Coen's comedy O Brother, Where Art Thou? is the most surprising musical success of the year. Who would have guessed that a collection of vintage bluegrass standards could top the charts in 2001?

Certainly not the Coen brothers, who arranged this Nashville concert of selections from the movie several weeks before its release. Not for profit, but out of sheer infatuation with the reedy voices, twanging rhythms and lyrics possessing such simple honesty. Down From the Mountain documents that concert with the same straightforward style and effortless charm.

Nothing fancy, just a parade of grizzled legends and young admirers carrying on tradition. Everyone kneels at the altar of Ralph Stanley, the eldest statesman of bluegrass, who oversees this outpouring of affection for his life's work with frail pride. Also touching are the moments with host John Hartford, his body ravaged by the cancer that killed him in June. Hartford's dry, growling version of Big Rock Candy Mountain is, as Emmylou Harris claims later, "one of the best things I've ever heard."

Other highlights include Dan Tyminski wailing Man of Constant Sorrow with the voice George Clooney lip-synched in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the a cappella work song Po Lazarus by the Fairfield Four and the saintly voices of Harris, Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch on the siren song Nothing but the Baby. Directors D.A. Pennebaker, Chris Hedegus and Nick Doob are, in effect, songcatchers marking an era that isn't bygone, not yet at least. Down From the Mountain proves what a shame it'll be if that ever happens.

Opens Friday at Channelside Cinemas. A

STEVE PERSALL, Times film critic

Discordant notes in the American anthem

An American Rhapsody (PG-13) (106 min.) -- Film editor Eva Gardos (Mask, Bastard Out of Carolina) makes her debut as a screenwriter and director with a very personal tale. The story of Suzanne (Scarlett Johansson), a Hungarian child reunited with her immigrant parents in the United States, is Gardos' story as well.

Bureaucracy separates Suzanne from her parents (Tony Goldwyn, Nastassja Kinski) when they feel Communist oppression in the 1950s. The girl is raised by peasants while her parents and a sister become Westernized, giving them an uncomfortable head start by the time Suzanne arrives. That culture shock and Suzanne's growing awareness of her parents' sacrifices are the core of Gardos' movie.

New York Times film critic Dave Kehr wrote: "Unlike many immigrant sagas -- say, Elia Kazan's 1963 America, America -- An American Rhapsody does not seem to have been subsidized by the State Department. Instead of a stirring tribute to the land of opportunity, the picture is largely the story of a childhood interrupted, of an idyllic, natural youth replaced by something artificial and grotesque. Ms. Gardos is not a particularly flavorful filmmaker, but she is an honest one."

Opens Friday at Channelside Cinemas.

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