O Brother, Where Art Thou? denotes two early twenty-first-century mass media phenomena: a film by Joel and Ethan Coen and its influential roots-music soundtrack.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? denotes two early twenty-first-century mass media phenomena: a film by Joel and Ethan Coen and its influential roots-music soundtrack. The title comes from Preston Sturges’s classic 1941 film, Sullivan’s Travels, in which it is the name of the social allegory that fictional filmmaker John L. Sullivan wishes to make to redeem a career he thinks he has wasted on light comedies.
In the 2000 film Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney) and two associates escape a 1937 Mississippi chain gang and struggle to return to excavate buried treasure on McGill’s farm before a Tennessee Valley Authority dam project floods it. Like Sullivan’s Travels, the movie follows the picaresque format of the road picture. The fugitives crisscross Mississippi at an impossible pace, make a hit recording, and alter the course of a gubernatorial campaign in which the “reform” candidate is climactically revealed to be a Klansman.
Like most Coen films, O Brother, Where Art Thou? brims with allusion. As most of the film’s promotional materials proclaimed, the plot—though much less than that of James Joyce’s Ulysses—is based on events of the first and greatest road saga, the Odyssey. John Goodman plays Cyclops, a one-eyed Bible salesman; three washerwomen singing by a stream are the Sirens; joyful southern evangelicals getting baptized in a river are the Lotus Eaters; and McGill struggles to reach his wife, Penny, in fictional Ithaca, Mississippi. Yet more complex cinematic and literary allusions abound as well. The dance of the Klansmen is lifted from the Wizard of Oz. The title is taken from Sturges’s dark satire about the relation between the literally unwashed masses (represented in the Coens’ film by any number of Mississippians) and the mass media they consume (represented here by radio, which incumbent governor Pappy O’Daniel calls “mass communicatin”). Near movie’s end, McGill floats on a coffin à la Herman Melville’s Ishmael.
Yet despite the film’s superficially comic tone, McGill’s closing prophecy that rural electrification will mean “out with the old spiritual mumbo-jumbo, the superstitions, and the backward ways” and the appearance in the South of “a veritable Age of Reason—like the one they had in France” employs a dramatic irony so heavy that in 2000 it verged on pathos. Though the depression setting softens the satire of the South, the film nods as much to contemporary events as to literature and film. At least since Barton Fink (1991), the Coen brothers have dramatized tensions and complicities between intellectuals and a mindless mob portrayed with a touch of Nazi imagery. Raised in an observant Jewish home, the Coens wrote the screenplay immediately after the Southern Baptist Convention (the Lotus Eaters) had called for the conversion of the Jews. The chief Klan character disparages Jews and lauds “heritage” and the Confederate flag, which were sources of debate in several southern states—including Mississippi—at the time of the film’s composition and remain so today. McGill’s representative rural southern sidekicks, Pete (John Turturro) and Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson), are two of the stupidest characters ever put on film, and the forward-looking McGill repeatedly explodes when confronted by other characters’ torpor and stubborn backwardness. Clooney delivers his lines in a fast-talking Kentucky accent based on his uncle’s, while Turturro, Nelson, and most of the other supporting actors strive for more Mississippian cadences and inflections.
This contrast is most evident in the film’s music. The escapees’ band, the Soggy Bottom Boys (a nod to Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs’s Foggy Mountain Boys), makes its name bringing Appalachian “hillbilly” music to notoriously unmountainous Mississippi. The Coens have called the film “a valentine to the music”—but none of it comes from Mississippi. Even the lone real-life bluesman who appears in the film, Chris Thomas King, hails from Baton Rouge. The bulk of the film’s old-timey soundtrack is performed by bluegrass and alt-country musicians and the black Nashville gospel group the Fairfield Four. If the film satirizes the mores of the Lower South, its soundtrack unambivalently lauds the music of the Upper. Effectively launched by a concert at the Ryman Auditorium in May 2000—before the film was released in the United States—the soundtrack went on to sell nearly eight million copies by 2015. Famously, it did so without the benefit of airplay on mainstream country music radio. Down from the Mountain, D. A. Pennebaker’s documentary film of the Ryman concert, was released in theaters and on DVD in 2001. The documentary’s soundtrack became another recording, its musicians toured nationally, and dozens more spinoff records were released. Bluegrass acts saw increased music sales and concert attendance as the genre succeeded the Cuban music of 1997’s Buena Vista Social Club as the nation’s “authentic” alternative music du jour.
- Hugh Ruppersburg, Southern Cultures (Winter 2003)