O Brother, Where Art Thou?
|O Brother, Where Art Thou?|
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Joel Coen|
|Produced by||Ethan Coen|
|Based on||The Odyssey
|Music by||T Bone Burnett|
|Box office||$71.9 million|
O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a 2000 adventure comedy film written, produced, edited, and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, and starring George Clooney, John Turturro, and Tim Blake Nelson, with John Goodman, Holly Hunter, and Charles Durning in supporting roles. Set in 1937 rural Mississippi during the Great Depression, the film's story is a modern satire loosely based on Homer’s epic poem, Odyssey. The title of the film is a reference to the 1941 film Sullivan's Travels, in which the protagonist (a director) wants to film a fictional book about the Great Depression called O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Much of the music used in the film is period folk music, including that of Virginia bluegrass singer Ralph Stanley. The movie was one of the first to extensively use digital color correction, to give the film an autumnal, sepia-tinted look. The film received positive reviews, and the American folk music soundtrack won a Grammy for Album of the Year in 2001. The original band soon became popular after the film release and the country and folk musicians who were dubbed into the film, such as John Hartford, Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, Chris Sharp, and others, joined together to perform the music from the film in a Down from the Mountain concert tour which was filmed for TV and DVD.
In 1937, Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney), Pete Hogwallop (John Turturro), and Delmar O'Donnell (Tim Blake Nelson) escape from a chain gang at Parchman Farm and set out to retrieve the $1,200,000 in treasure that Everett claims to have stolen from an armored car and buried before his incarceration. They have four days to find it before the valley in which it is hidden will be flooded to create Arkabutla Lake as part of a new hydroelectric project. Early in their escape, while still chained together, they try to jump onto a moving train, but are dragged off when Pete trips. They then encounter a blind man (Lee Weaver) traveling on a handcar. They hitch a ride, and he tells their futures. They "seek a great fortune" and they will "find a fortune, though it will not be the one" they seek. They will also see many wonders on their journey, including a "cow on the roof of a cotton house".
The trio comes to the house of Pete's cousin, Washington B. "Wash" Hogwallop (Frank Collison), who removes their chains, but because he needs the money from the bounty, turns them in to the police later that night, led by Sheriff Cooley (Daniel von Bargen). The authorities set ablaze the barn where they are sleeping but the trio quickly escapes with the help of Wash's son. When they pass a congregation on the banks of a river the next morning, Pete and Delmar are enticed by the idea of baptism, to the immense derision of the skeptical Everett. As the journey continues, they travel briefly with a young guitarist named Tommy Johnson (Chris Thomas King). When asked why he was at a crossroads in the middle of nowhere, he reveals that he sold his soul to the devil in exchange for the ability to play the guitar. Tommy describes the devil as being "White, as white as you folks...with empty eyes and a big hollow voice. He love to travel around with a mean old hound," a description which matches Sheriff Cooley and his dog.
They come across a radio station run by a blind man (Stephen Root) and record the song "Man of Constant Sorrow", calling themselves the Soggy Bottom Boys. Unknown to them, the song becomes famous "as far away as Mobile". The trio parts ways with Tommy after their car is discovered by police that night, and they continue on their own. Among their many encounters, the most notable are a famous bank robber George "Baby Face" Nelson (Michael Badalucco), and a run-in with three sirens who seduce and knock them unconscious with corn liquor. When Everett and Delmar awake, they find that Pete has vanished and only his clothes remain with a leopard frog inside. Delmar believes the sirens turned Pete into a toad and carries the toad in a box. A little later, one-eyed Bible salesman Daniel "Big Dan" Teague (John Goodman) invites them for a picnic lunch, then mugs them and kills the frog.
The next day, Everett and Delmar arrive in Everett's home town only to find that Everett's wife, Penny (Holly Hunter), is engaged to Vernon T. Waldrip (Ray McKinnon), campaign manager for gubernatorial candidate Homer Stokes (Wayne Duvall). She refuses to take Everett back and is so ashamed of him that she has been telling their daughters he was killed by a train.
While watching a film in a cinema, Everett and Delmar discover that Pete is still alive. The sirens had turned him in to collect the bounty on his head. After Everett and Delmar rescue him from jail that night, Pete tells them that he revealed the location of the treasure. Everett admits that he only was in prison for practicing law without a license and that there was never any armored car robbery, nor treasure. He only mentioned it to persuade the other men (who were chained to him) to escape so he could reconcile with his wife, who wrote him that she would be getting remarried. Pete is outraged at this news, primarily because he only had two weeks left on his original sentence and must now serve an additional 50 years for his escape.
The trio stumbles upon a Ku Klux Klan rally, in which the Imperial Wizard sings "O Death", and discovers that Tommy has been captured and is about to be lynched. The three disguise themselves as the color guard and attempt a rescue, but Big Dan, a Grand Cyclops in the Klan, reveals their identities and chaos ensues, in which the Imperial Wizard is revealed to be Stokes. The trio flees the scene, with Everett cutting the wires supporting a large burning cross, which falls on and incinerates some of the Klansmen (including Big Dan).
Everett convinces Pete, Delmar, and Tommy to help him win his wife back. Disguised as musicians, they sneak into a Stokes campaign gala dinner she is attending. Everett tries to convince his wife he is "bona fide", but she brushes him off. The group begins an impromptu musical performance beginning with "In the Jailhouse Now" followed by "Man of Constant Sorrow", during which the crowd recognizes them as the Soggy Bottom Boys and goes wild. Stokes, on the other hand, recognizes them as the group who disgraced his lynch mob and shouts for the music to stop, angering the crowd. He denounces the Soggy Bottom Boys as hostile to the social order, but the crowd is unimpressed and runs him out of town on a rail. Pappy O'Daniel (Charles Durning), the sitting governor, seizes the opportunity. He gets on stage, dances, and endorses the Soggy Bottom Boys, granting them a full pardon; he then has them join in singing "You Are My Sunshine" while the event is played on the radio. Penny accepts Everett back, but demands that he find her original ring if they are to be married. As they leave the dinner, they run into a mob taking to jail a jubilant George, who happily claims he will be electrocuted. Delmar comments, "Looks like George is right back on top again."
The next morning, the four men set out to retrieve the ring, which is at a cabin in the valley where Everett originally claimed to have hidden the treasure. When they arrive, Cooley and his men arrest them and prepare to hang them. Everett protests, stating they had been pardoned on the radio, but Sheriff Cooley ignores their pleas, responding that where he comes from, "they don't have a radio". The three start to despair while Everett improvises a prayer to be saved. Suddenly, the valley is flooded and they are saved from hanging while Sheriff Cooley, his dogs, and his men drown during the flood. Using one of their coffins as a raft, Pete and Delmar jubilantly praise God, while Everett dismisses the incident as luck. He pipes down though, as a cow floats by on top of a submerged cotton house. Tommy finds the ring in a desk on which he is floating, and they return to town.
Everett and Penny walk through town with their daughters in tow, singing. Everett presents the ring to Penny, who promptly states that it is the wrong one and demands her ring back. As Everett protests the futility of trying to find it at the bottom of the lake, the blind man rolls by on his railway handcar, his voice joining those of the girls in song.
- George Clooney as Ulysses Everett McGill, a man who is imprisoned for practicing law without a license. He claims to have escaped from prison so he can find his buried loot, though in reality it is so he can get back to his family before his wife remarries. He corresponds to Odysseus (Ulysses) in the Odyssey.
- Tim Blake Nelson as Delmar O'Donnell, a small-time crook imprisoned for robbing a Piggly Wiggly in Yazoo City; he at first claims innocence, but later admits he is guilty. Delmar says he will spend his share of Everett's nonexistent money buying back his family farm, believing, "you ain't no kind of man if you ain't got land."
- John Turturro, as Pete Hogwallop, a fellow criminal who reveals little about his past. He believes in being true to one's kin, even when his cousin Washington B. Hogwallop betrays him. He dreams of moving out west and opening a fine restaurant, where he will be the maître d'. He agreed to go along with the breakout, though he only had two weeks left on his sentence.
- Chris Thomas King as Tommy Johnson, a skilled blues musician. He is the accompanying guitarist in the Soggy Bottom Boys. He claims he sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his skill on guitar. He shares his name and story with the real-life Tommy Johnson, who is said to have sold his soul to the devil at a rural Mississippi crossroads.
- Frank Collison as Washington B. "Wash" Hogwallop, Pete's paternal cousin. He removes the chains off Pete and the others, but later attempts to turn them into the police.
- John Goodman as Daniel "Big Dan" Teague, a one-eyed man who masquerades as a Bible salesman and mugs Everett. Later, he reveals the identity of the trio when they are disguised at a Ku Klux Klan rally, but they kill him by cutting loose a burning cross that falls onto him and the Klansmen. He corresponds to the cyclops Polyphemus in the Odyssey.
- Holly Hunter as Penny Wharvey-McGill, Everett's ex-wife; a demanding woman, she is fed up with Everett's wheeling and dealing, and divorces him while he is in prison, telling their children that he was hit by a Louisville & Nashville train. She is engaged to Vernon T. Waldrip until Everett wins her back. She corresponds to Penelope in the Odyssey.
- Charles Durning as Menelaus "Pappy" O'Daniel, the incumbent Governor of Mississippi. He is frequently seen berating his son and his campaign managers, who are depicted as simpletons. His character is based on Texas governor W. Lee "Pappy" O'Daniel. Flensted-Jensen elaborates on the connection between the fictional and the real Pappy O'Daniel. He corresponds to Menelaus in the Odyssey.
- Daniel von Bargen as Sheriff Cooley, a ruthless rural sheriff who pursues the trio for the duration of the film. He eventually ambushes them after they have been pardoned by the governor; he intends to hang them regardless, but when the valley is flooded, he drowns with his men and dog. He fits Tommy Johnson's description of the devil in that his sunglasses look like "big empty eyes" and he travels with a bloodhound. He corresponds to Poseidon in the Odyssey and has been compared to Boss Godfrey in Cool Hand Luke.
- Wayne Duvall as Homer Stokes, the reform candidate in the upcoming election for Governor. He travels the countryside with a dwarf, who depicts the "little man", and a broom, with which he promises to "sweep this state clean". He is secretly an Imperial Wizard in the Ku Klux Klan. He falsely identifies Everett, Pete, and Delmar as colored people because they were dirty.
- Ray McKinnon as Vernon T. Waldrip, Penny's "bona fide" suitor. He is the manager of the Homer Stokes campaign. The character's name has been suggested to be a nod to novelist Howard Waldrop, whose novella A Dozen Tough Jobs is one of the inspirations behind the film. He corresponds to the Suitors of Penelope in the Odyssey. 
- Michael Badalucco as George Nelson, is portrayed as a bipolar bank robber who dislikes being called "Baby Face". In reality, George Nelson died three years earlier in 1934. Given the story takes place in 1937 (and as the real George Nelson died in a shootout known as the Battle of Barrington rather than by electric chair as suggested in the film), his appearance in the film is historically inaccurate.
- Stephen Root as Mr. Lund, the blind radio station manager who records Everett's story in the song "Man of Constant Sorrow", and makes him known throughout the state. He corresponds to Homer.
- Lee Weaver as the Blind Seer, a mysterious railroad man who accurately predicts the outcome of the trio's adventure, as well as several other incidents. He corresponds to Tiresias in the Odyssey.
The idea of O Brother, Where Art Thou? arose spontaneously. Work on the script began long before the start of production in December 1997, and was at least half-written by May 1998. Despite the fact that Ethan described the Odyssey as "one of my favorite storyline schemes" neither of the brothers had read the epic and were only familiar with its content through adaptations and numerous references to the Odyssey in popular culture. According to the brothers, Nelson (who has a degree in classics from Brown University) was the only person on the set who had read the Odyssey.
The title of the film is a reference to the 1941 Preston Sturges film Sullivan's Travels, in which the protagonist (a director) wants to direct a film about the Great Depression called O Brother, Where Art Thou? that will be a "commentary on modern conditions, stark realism, the problems that confront the average man". Lacking any experience in this area, the director sets out on a journey to experience the human suffering of the average man, but is sabotaged by his anxious studio. The film has some similarity in tone to Sturges' film, including scenes with prison gangs and a black church choir. The prisoners at the picture show scene is also a direct homage to a nearly identical scene in Sturges' film.
Joel Coen revealed in a 2000 interview that he came to Phoenix, Arizona, to offer the lead role to Clooney. Clooney agreed to do the role immediately, without reading the script. He stated that he liked even the Coens' least successful films.
John Turturro, who plays Pete, had been a constant actor for the Coens. O Brother, Where Art Thou? was the fourth film of the brothers in which he has starred. Other actors in O Brother, Where Art Thou? who had worked previously with the Coens include John Goodman (three films), Holly Hunter (two), Michael Badalucco, and Charles Durning (in one film each).
One of the notable features of the film is its use of digital color correction to give the film a sepia-tinted look. Cinematographer Roger Deakins stated, "Ethan and Joel favored a dry, dusty Delta look with golden sunsets. They wanted it to look like an old hand-tinted picture, with the intensity of colors dictated by the scene and natural skin tones that were all shades of the rainbow."
This was the fifth film collaboration between the Coen Brothers and Deakins, and it was slated to be shot in Mississippi at a time of year when the foliage, grass, trees, and bushes would be a lush green. It was filmed near locations in Canton, Mississippi and Florence, South Carolina in the summer of 1999. After shooting tests, including film bipack and bleach bypass techniques, Deakins suggested digital mastering be used. Deakins subsequently spent 11 weeks fine-tuning the look, mainly targeting the greens, making them a burnt yellow and desaturating the overall image timing the digital files. This made it the first feature film to be entirely color corrected by digital means, narrowly beating Nick Park's Chicken Run.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? was the first time a digital intermediate was used on the entirety of a first-run Hollywood film which otherwise had very few visual effects. The work was done in Los Angeles by Cinesite using a Spirit DataCine for scanning at 2K resolution, a Pandora MegaDef to adjust the color, and a Kodak Lightning II recorder to put out to film.
A major theme of the film is the connection between old-time music and political campaigning in the Southern U.S. It makes reference to the traditions, institutions, and campaign practices of bossism and political reform that defined Southern politics in the first half of the 20th century.
The Ku Klux Klan, at the time a political force of white populism, is depicted burning crosses and engaging in ceremonial dance. The character Menelaus "Pappy" O'Daniel, the Governor of Mississippi and host of the radio show The Flour Hour, is similar in name and demeanor to W. Lee "Pappy" O'Daniel, one-time Governor of Texas and later U.S. Senator from that state. W. Lee O'Daniel was in the flour business, and used a backing band called the Light Crust Doughboys on his radio show. In one campaign, W. Lee O'Daniel carried a broom, an oft-used campaign device in the reform era, promising to sweep away patronage and corruption. His theme song had the hook, "Please pass the biscuits, Pappy", emphasizing his connection with flour.
While the film borrows from real-life politics, differences are obvious between the characters in the film and historical political figures. The O'Daniel of the movie used "You Are My Sunshine" as his theme song (which was originally recorded by real-life Governor of Louisiana James Houston "Jimmie" Davis) and Homer Stokes, as the challenger to the incumbent O'Daniel, portrays himself as the "reform candidate", using a broom as a prop.
Music in the film was originally conceived as a major component of the film, not merely as a background or a support. Noted producer and musician T-Bone Burnett worked with the Coens while the script was still in its working phases, and the soundtrack was recorded before filming commenced. Burnett in turn consulted with famed Los Angeles music historian Alan Larman.
Much of the music used in the film is period-specific folk music, including that of Virginia bluegrass singer Ralph Stanley. The musical selection also includes religious music, including Primitive Baptist and traditional African American gospel, most notably the Fairfield Four, an a cappella quartet with a career extending back to 1921 who appear in the soundtrack and as gravediggers towards the film's end. Selected songs in the film reflect the possible spectrum of musical styles typical of the old culture of the American South: gospel, delta blues, country, swing and bluegrass.
The notable use of dirges and other macabre songs is a theme that often recurs in Appalachian music ("O Death", "Lonesome Valley", "Angel Band", "I Am Weary") in contrast to bright, cheerful songs ("Keep On the Sunny Side", "In the Highways") in other parts of the film.
The voices of the Soggy Bottom Boys were provided by Dan Tyminski (lead vocal on "Man of Constant Sorrow"), Nashville songwriter Harley Allen, and the Nashville Bluegrass Band's Pat Enright. The three won a CMA Award for Single of the Year and a Grammy Award for Best Country Collaboration with Vocals, both for the song "Man of Constant Sorrow". Tim Blake Nelson sang the lead vocal on "In the Jailhouse Now".
"Man of Constant Sorrow" has five variations: two are used in the film, one in the music video, and two in the soundtrack album. Two of the variations feature the verses being sung back-to-back, and the other three variations feature additional music between each verse. Though the song received little significant radio airplay, it reached #35 on the U.S. Billboard Hot Country Singles & Tracks chart in 2002. The version of "I'll Fly Away" heard in the film is performed not by Krauss and Welch (as it is on the CD and concert tour), but by the Kossoy Sisters with Erik Darling accompanying on long-neck five-string banjo, recorded in 1956 for the album Bowling Green on Tradition Records.
Tommy, the lead guitarist of the Soggy Bottom Boys, is an intentional reference to the legend of Delta blues artist Tommy Johnson, who claimed to have sold his soul to the devil in return for blues fame. The same connection can be made to Robert Johnson, who was also reputed to have sold his soul to the Devil at a crossroads in return for musical skills. This attribution is supported when the boys drop off Tommy at a crossroads, "Cross Road Blues" being a signature song of Robert Johnson.
The film was a box office and commercial success, grossing $71,868,327 off its $26 million budget. The film received positive reviews from critics. Review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes gives it a score of 77% based on 147 reviews, with an average score of 7.1/10, making the film a "Certified Fresh" on the website's rating system.
The film also received two Academy Award nominations at the 73rd Academy Awards: Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Cinematography. Cinematographer Roger Deakins was recognized with both Academy Award and ASC Outstanding Achievement Award nominations for his work on the film.
For his portrayal of Ulysses Everett McGill, George Clooney received the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy. The film was also nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy.
The Soggy Bottom Boys
The Soggy Bottom Boys, the musical group that the main characters form, serve as accompaniment for the film. The name is a homage to the Foggy Mountain Boys, a bluegrass band led by Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. In the film, the songs credited to the band are lip-synched by the actors, except that Tim Blake Nelson does sing his own vocals on "In the Jailhouse Now". The actual musicians are Dan Tyminski (guitar and lead vocals), Harley Allen, and Pat Enright. The band's hit single is Dick Burnett's "Man of Constant Sorrow", a song that had already enjoyed much success in real life. After the film's release, the fictitious band became so popular that the country and folk musicians who were dubbed into the film, such as Ralph Stanley, John Hartford, Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, Chris Sharp, and others, all got together and performed the music from the film in a Down from the Mountain concert tour which was filmed for TV and DVD.
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- O Brother, Where Art Thou? at the Internet Movie Database
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- O Brother, Where Art Thou? at Rotten Tomatoes
- Coenesque: The Films of the Coen Brothers
- American Myth Today: O Brother, Where Art Thou? American Studies at the University of Virginia
- Official website for the soundtrack