Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

O Brother, Where Art Thou?


There are not many films that are as much fun as this one. It sparked a revival of “roots” music, which is really just old-timey country and folk and gospel. It’s music from before country got glitz, back when the Grand Old Opry was a lot of hicks standing on the stage a-pickin’ and a-fiddlin’ and a-pluckin’, people who really did grow up hardscrabble in the hills and the mines.

Yes, it’s based on the Odyssey (which the Coens admit they never even read) with Ulysses Everett McGill trying to find his way home to his wife Penelope (Holly Hunter) and daughters, encountering Cyclops (John Goodman) and a group of sirens along the way, but that’s the least of the pleasures here. He and his trusting companions John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson also ride with Babyface Nelson for a while, and pick up Robert Johnson at a crossroads where he has just sold his soul to the devil. They later break him out of a Klan lynching that is at the same time both one of most chilling and funniest scenes I have ever seen. Like in Raising Arizona, the dialogue is deliberately more poetic and educated than these characters are likely to speak, and it works very well. Don’t expect the story to make much sense, or to get anywhere. Like the Odyssey, it is a series of adventures on the road (well, the sea is a road, when you’re trying to get somewhere). And the title … well, when I first heard it I was overcome with joy, and knew I would see it, no matter what. That’s because it was brazenly stolen from one of my favorite films by the great Preston Sturges, Sullivan’s Travels. In that picture, Joel McRae as Sullivan was tired of making stupid comedy movies like Ants in Your Pants of 1938. He wanted to make a serious picture about poverty and human suffering (things he knows absolutely nothing about). So he’s bought a book called O Brother, Where Art Thou? The movie was never made by the fictional director … but now it exists! Hurray!

But the real attraction is the music, always. We go from one lovely set piece to another, each one showcasing a different aspect of this wonderful music. I bought the soundtrack as soon as it came out, and listened to it over and over. And many of the musicians on it got together for the “Down From the Mountain” tour, which did very good business and brought some of these people a new career and revived the careers of others, I’m happy to say. For that alone the Coens should be thanked, but they have also made a sweet and astounding movie that I’ll be happy to see over and over again.