In popular culture, the Coen Brothers’ movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) has almost receded into the shadows of its bestselling soundtrack, a compilation that—like the disc accompanying the movie Garden State and those collectively corresponding to the films of Wes Anderson—virtually defined a genre. The Depression-era rural string-band music spotlighted in the film was so unfamiliar to viewers that many mischaracterized it as “bluegrass” music, a genre that came a bit later but whose founder Bill Monroe took ownership of the banjo as surely as Chuck Berry took ownership of the guitar for rock ‘n’ roll.
There was a time and a place, though, when banjos and guitars were used not to play bluegrass, rock music, or “folk” music in the aesthetically-conscious, politically-charged sense that term has taken since Woody Guthrie’s rise; in Mississippi in the 1930s—the setting for O Brother—they were used to play a music that now sounds like stem-cell music, music that holds all the possibilities that were later realized in American music. There’s gospel, there’s blues, there’s bluegrass, and, yes, there’s even “folk music” to be heard therein. It was hillbilly music, the kind of music that was often called “country music” before Hank Williams claimed that label for lean, mean, lonesome-cowboy songs. It’s the sound of the Carter Family, the musical milk on which Johnny Cash and Ralph Stanley were nourished. You wouldn’t call it black music, but it coexisted with, was influenced by, and in turn influenced African-American gospel and blues. It incorporated traditional music brought over from Europe and Africa, but it sounds like pure liquid America—especially as burnished by T-Bone Burnett, who produced the O Brother soundtrack.
To say that the O Brother music has eclipsed the film is not to say that the film has been done an injustice; the film hugs its soundtrack more intimately than even most music videos are able to accomplish. The movie matches the music in theme, tone, and even in commercial calculation: the film depicts politicians using the sweet sounds of good pickin’ and heavenly singin’ to profit themselves, as politicians and corporations did at the time and as the Coens themselves did (both aesthetically and, possibly to their own great surprise, financially) in making the film. In their other films, the Coens don’t demonstrate as deft a touch with music as does an Anderson or a Tarantino—in fact, The Ladykillers, the Coens’ attempt to recapture the magic with Burnett, was to fall rather flat—but with O Brother, they absolutely hit the sweet spot.
I praised the Coens’ Fargo for the fact that it doesn’t feel like a genre exercise; for that reason among others I still think that’s their best film, but O Brother is definitely their best genre exercise. The genre in question is the road movie, and the Coens made the inspired decision to trace the genre straight back to its roots in Homer’s Odyssey. The film is explicitly based on that story, though they gain less from the story’s specifics (there are sirens, and a cyclops in the person of John Goodman) than from its general sense that its hero is traveling through a world unknown; a world where there be monsters. There were legends in the pre-war south, and there are legends about the pre-war south; O Brother brings those legends lovingly to life.
The movie follows fugitives Everett (George Clooney), Pete (John Turturro), and Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) as they seek a treasure Everett hid before being apprehended; as they journey through the sunbaked state of Mississippi, though, their search evolves and its subject changes. Pursued by the relentless Sheriff Cooley (Daniel von Bargen), they find themselves caught up in a Ku Klux Klan rally, a bank heist being carried off by “Babyface” Nelson (Michael Badalucco), a recording session where they are accompanied by Tommy Johnson (Chris Thomas King, standing in for Robert Johnson), a political rally where entertainment is provided by a few of the several daughters Everett had with his ex-wife Penny (Holly Hunter), and other tight spots as they pursue—more or less in this order—beauty, wealth, and freedom.
The film is peopled with archetypes rather than three-dimensional characters, but that’s okay—it’s an epic, and a glorious one at that. After the (relatively) lazy plotting of The Big Lebowski, O Brother is refreshingly precise: one setup after the other pays off in ways we don’t see coming. It doesn’t feel calculated, though; it feels downright indulgent in the best way. The music, the photography, the performances—without becoming bogged down, the film manages to languish in all of them. Clooney gets most of the Coens’ trademark mouthfuls of juicy vintage slang and highflown turns of phrase (“a woman is the most fiendish instrument of torture ever devised to bedevil the days of man”), and he turns out to have Goodman’s knack for taking everything just seriously enough.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? is screening on October 7 as part of the Walker Art Center’s Coen retrospective. With its warm heart, warm palette, and sizzling soundtrack, it might just melt that big silver ice cube down a few inches.