O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a movie that was released in the year 2000. It was directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. The Coen Brothers have a long history of producing movies that are quirky and innovative, with memorable characters and great scenes. They have directed The Big Lebowski, Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, one of my personal favourites, Barton Fink (which won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival), Inside Llewyn Davis and the Academy Award winning, No Country For Old Men and Fargo. Needless to say, these talented men know how to put together a movie that resonates with critics and regular movie audiences alike. They do this partly by being students of literature and cinema. There is no clearer example of this than O Brother, Where Art Thou?
The movie stars Goerge Clooney, John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson as three convicts who have escaped from a chain gang in the southern US and head off on a journey to find buried treasure. Along the way, the trio are faced with numerous challenges, meet a wide variety of interesting, dangerous and/or mysterious characters and, as is often the case, wind up changed as humans by the end of the story. That O Brother, Where Art Thou? uses the old storytelling strategy of having a physical journey tell the story of a personal journey doesn’t make it unique among movies. There are a whole host of movies that use this storytelling device to tell their tale. What makes the Coen Brothers’ take so unique is that they have based their movie on the original story of a journey….the epic poem, The Odyssey by Homer. Without going into too much detail, The Iliad and The Odyssey by Homer are considered two of the most important works of literature in all of human history. In both cases, Homer became one of the very first people ever to tell an epic tale in written form. For the sake of this post, let’s take a very quick look at The Odyssey and see how it inspired the Coen Brothers in their making of O Brother, Where Art Thou?
The Odyssey tells the story of Odysseus, the King of Ithaca. In this story, Odysseus fights for ten years in The Trojan War and then, once the war is over, the story follows him and his men as they struggle for ten more years to get back home. Along the way, Odysseus and his men encounter interesting, dangerous and/or mysterious characters such as the Cyclops and the Sirens. Because it takes Odyesseus two decades to get back to his home, his wife, Penelope, has assumed that he has been killed and has sought to go on with her life. This includes remarrying. So, part of the story of The Odyssey involves scenes in which Penelope deals with various suitors who are asking for her hand in marriage. All the while, Odysseus is struggling, straining and battling his way back home to be with her as well. For O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the Coen Brothers have made almost a scene by scene updated adaptation of The Odyssey. George Clooney plays the Odysseus character. Holly Hunter plays the role of Penelope. John Goodman plays a KKK Bible salesman who has only one eye (Cyclops). John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson play characters based upon Odysseus’ lieutenants. Singers Alison Krauss, Gillian Welch and Emmylou Harris play a trio of singers who attempt to seduce and rob our escapees (the Sirens). As it turns out, just as Odysseus journeyed to return to his one true love, Penelope, so George Clooney does the same to be with his true love, Holly Hunter. He ends up discovering that true treasure does not necessarily come in gold and silver form.
In a further tip of the cinematic hat, the Coen Brothers named their film after a scene in another movie about the Great Depression and the southern US called Sullivan’s Travels. This movie was directed by Preston Sturges. In the movie, there was a character who wanted to direct a movie called O Brother, Where Art Thou? about the reality of life for ordinary folks in the South. Not only did the Coen Brothers get the title for their movie from the Sturges film but another draw was the fact that Preston Sturges paved the way for them to make movies like they do. Sturges was one of the very first people in Hollywood to create their own original screenplays and then direct these screenplays and make them into a movie. At the time that Preston Sturges was making history in the 1930s and 40s, it was common practice for screenwriters and directors to be separate people. But, as Sturges proved, one person could fill both roles just as the Coen Brothers are proving that today with the films they write and produce.
As is the case with all good directors, the Coen Brothers are known for their attention to detail. An example of that is how they used music throughout O Brother, Where Art Thou? First of all, all of the music contained in the original motion picture soundtrack is historically accurate to the time and location where the movie takes place. I have often used the phrase “woven into the fabric of society” to describe instances where a song ceases to just be a piece of music that exists in isolation and, instead becomes integrated completely into the environment in which it is being played. This is the case with the music in O Brother, Where Art Thou? This movie is set in the Appalachian region of the US which includes Kentucky, Virginia, Mississippi and so on. The period in history the movie is describing is the 1930s. At that time in the Appalachian region of the southern US, Bluegrass and American traditional folk music was the popular style of music among ordinary people. In both styles of music, harmonies play a big role when singing. The instruments used tended to be fiddles, banjos, pianos and acoustic guitars. In fact, as was the case in the Maritime provinces of Canada, there were a great many immigrants who settled along the US seaboard who originally came from England, Scotland and Ireland. When they arrived, they brought many of their customs and traditions with them. When it came to music, they brought fiddles and guitars. It is claimed that banjos originated from slaves. In any case, over time, music took on a flavour of its own in the Appalachian region and, as a result, Bluegrass and Traditional American Folk music came to be. So, for the soundtrack of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, all of the music reflects the culture of the time and location of the movie. The most popular song to come from the soundtrack is a centuries old song called “Man of Constant Sorrow”. No one knows who originally wrote this tale of woe and perseverance but the first person to be credited with recording a published version of the song was a bling guitarist from the South called Blind Dick Bennett. As is the case with many folk songs and spirituals from the distant past, there have been many recordings of this song by all manner of singers such as Bob Dylan and Ginger Baker, all the way through a host of local Appalachian singers who covered the song because it has cultural meaning to them. For the movie, George Clooney and his gang lip sync their way through the song while on stage. The real voices belong to members of Alison Krauss’ band, Union Station. Specifically, the lead vocals are sung by Dan Tyminski. Because of the success of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, there has been a resurgence in appreciation among fans and fellow musicians when it comes to Bluegrass music. In fact, modern bands such as Mumford and Sons, The Avett Brothers, etc., use the same instruments and harmonize in the same manner when singing as do those who sing on the soundtrack that the Coen Brothers put together. Taking it one step further, electronic dance music super DJ, Avicii, even recorded an EDM-inspired tune called, “Hey Brother” that was taken directly from O Brother, Where Art Thou?
“A Man of Constant Sorrow” won the Grammy Award for Country Single of the Year and the soundtrack album won for Album of the Year at the Grammy Awards, as well as at the Country Music Association Awards. I guess it just goes to show that when you are respectful of your roots, whether it be in music, cinema or storytelling that good things often end up being the result. If you have any comments about O Brother, Where Art Thou? or any of the other Coen Brothers movies, feel free to let me know in the comment box below. Thanks for taking the time to read my words. I appreciate having you stop by.
The link to the video for the song, “A Man of Constant Sorrow” from the original motion picture soundtrack of the movie, O Brother, Where Art Thou? can be found here.
The link to the video for the official movie trailer for O Brother, Where Art Thou? can be found here.
The link to the video for the song “Go To Sleep Little Baby” from the original motion picture soundtrack of the movie, O Brother, Where Art Thou? can be found here.
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