O Brother, Where Art Thou?
|O Brother, Where Art Thou?|
|Directed by||Joel Coen|
|Based on||The Odyssey|
|Produced by||Ethan Coen|
|Music by||T Bone Burnett|
|Box office||$72 million|
O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a 2000 comedy drama film written, produced, co-edited, and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen; it stars George Clooney, John Turturro, and Tim Blake Nelson. Chris Thomas King, John Goodman, Holly Hunter, and Charles Durning have supporting roles in the cast.
The film is set in 1937 rural Mississippi during the Great Depression. Its story is a modern satire loosely based on Homer's epic Greek poem the Odyssey that incorporates social features of the American South. The title of the film is a reference to the Preston Sturges 1941 film Sullivan's Travels, in which the protagonist is a director who wants to film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, a fictitious book about the Great Depression.
Much of the music used in the film is period folk music. The movie was one of the first to extensively use digital color correction to give the film an autumnal sepia-tinted look. It was released by Buena Vista Pictures (through Touchstone Pictures) in North America, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain. Universal Pictures released it in other countries. The film was met with a positive critical reception, and the soundtrack won a Grammy Award for Album of the Year in 2002. The country and folk musicians who were dubbed into the film include John Hartford, Alison Krauss, Dan Tyminski, Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, Ralph Stanley, Chris Sharp, Patty Loveless, and others. They joined to perform the music from the film in the Down from the Mountain concert tour, which was filmed for consumer consumption via TV and DVD.
Three convicts, Pete, Delmar, and Ulysses Everett McGill, escape from a chain gang and set out to retrieve a treasure Everett claims to have buried, before the area is flooded to make a lake. The three get a lift from a blind man driving a handcar on a railway. He tells them they will find a fortune, but not the one they seek. The trio make their way to the house of Wash, Pete's cousin. They sleep in the barn, but Wash reports them to Sheriff Cooley, who, along with his men, torches the barn. Wash's son helps them escape.
They pick up Tommy Johnson, a young black man who claims he sold his soul to the devil in exchange for the ability to play guitar (a legend told about blues musician Robert Johnson). In need of money, the four stop at a radio broadcast tower where they record a song as the Soggy Bottom Boys. That night, the trio part ways with Tommy after their car is discovered by the police. Unbeknownst to them, the recording becomes a major hit.
Near a river, the group encounters three women washing clothes and singing. The women drug them with corn whiskey and they lose consciousness. Upon waking, Delmar finds Pete's clothes lying next to him, empty except for a toad. Delmar is convinced the women were sirens who transformed Pete into the toad. Later, one-eyed Bible salesman Big Dan invites them for a picnic lunch, then mugs them and kills the toad.
On their way to Everett's home town, Everett and Delmar see Pete working on a chain gang. Upon arriving Everett confronts his wife Penny, who changed her last name and told his daughters he was dead, and gets into a fight with her suitor Vernon. Later that night, they sneak into Pete's holding cell and free him. As it turns out, the women had dragged Pete away and turned him in to the authorities for the bounty. Under torture, Pete gave away the treasure's location to the police. Everett then confesses that there is no treasure; he fabricated the story to convince Delmar and Pete to escape with him in order to stop his wife from getting married. Pete, who only had two weeks left on his original sentence and will likely face fifty more years for escaping, is enraged.
The trio stumble upon a rally of the Ku Klux Klan, who are planning to hang Tommy. The trio disguise themselves as Klansmen and move to rescue Tommy. However, Big Dan, a Klan member, reveals their identities. Chaos ensues, and the Grand Wizard reveals himself as Homer Stokes, a candidate in the upcoming gubernatorial election. The trio rush Tommy away and cut the supports of a large burning cross, incinerating Big Dan.
Everett convinces Pete, Delmar, and Tommy to help him win his wife back. They sneak into a Stokes campaign gala dinner she is attending, disguised as musicians. The group begins a performance of their radio hit. The crowd recognizes the song and goes wild. Homer recognizes them as the group who humiliated his mob. When he demands the group be arrested and reveals his white supremacist views, the crowd runs him out of town on a rail. Pappy O'Daniel, the incumbent candidate, seizes the opportunity, endorses the Soggy Bottom Boys and grants them full pardons. Penny agrees to marry Everett with the condition that he find her original ring.
The next morning, the group sets out to retrieve the ring, which is at a cabin in the valley which Everett had earlier claimed was the location of his treasure. The police, having learned of the place from Pete, arrest the group. Dismissing their claims of having received pardons, Sheriff Cooley orders them hanged. As Everett prays to God, the valley is flooded and they are saved. Tommy finds the ring in a desk that floats by, and they return to town. However, when Everett presents the ring to Penny, it turns out it was her aunt's ring. She declares that she will not marry him with that ring, but only her wedding ring which is still lost.
- George Clooney as Ulysses Everett McGill. He corresponds to Odysseus (Ulysses) in the Odyssey. His singing voice is dubbed by Dan Tyminski.
- John Turturro as Pete. (His last name is never stated in the film.) Along with Delmar, Pete represents Odysseus' soldiers who wander with him from Troy to Ithaca, seeking to return home. His singing is dubbed by Harley Allen.
- Tim Blake Nelson as Delmar O'Donnell. Nelson does his own singing on “In the Jailhouse Now”, but is otherwise dubbed by Pat Enright.
- Chris Thomas King as Tommy Johnson, a skilled blues musician. He shares his name and story with Tommy Johnson, a blues musician who is said to have sold his soul to the devil at the Crossroads (also attributed to Robert Johnson).
- John Goodman as Daniel "Big Dan" Teague, a one-eyed mugger and Ku Klux Klan member who masquerades as a Bible salesman. He corresponds to the cyclops Polyphemus in the Odyssey.
- Holly Hunter as Penny Wharvey-McGill, Everett's ex-wife. She corresponds to Penelope in the Odyssey.
- Charles Durning as Menelaus "Pappy" O'Daniel, the governor of Mississippi. The character is based on Texas governor W. Lee "Pappy" O'Daniel. He shares a name with Menelaus, an Odyssey character, but corresponds with Zeus from the narrative.
- Daniel von Bargen as Sheriff Cooley, a ruthless rural sheriff who pursues the trio for the duration of the film. He corresponds to Poseidon in the Odyssey. He has been compared to Boss Godfrey in Cool Hand Luke.
- Wayne Duvall as Homer Stokes, a candidate for governor and the leader of a Ku Klux Klan mob. His singing is dubbed by Ralph Stanley.
- Ray McKinnon as Vernon T. Waldrip. He corresponds to the Suitors of Penelope in the Odyssey.
- Frank Collison as Washington Bartholomew "Wash" Hogwallop, Pete's cousin.
- Michael Badalucco as Baby Face Nelson.
- Stephen Root as Mr. Lund, a blind radio station manager. He corresponds to Homer.
- Lee Weaver as the Blind Seer, who accurately predicts the outcome of the trio's adventure. He corresponds to Tiresias in the Odyssey.
- Mia Tate, Musetta Vander, and Christy Taylor as the three "sirens". Their singing voices are dubbed by Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, and Gillian Welch.
Gillian Welch and Dan Tyminski also appear as a record store customer and a mandolinist, respectively. Del Pentacost, JR Horne, and Brian Reddy appear as members of Pappy O’Daniel’s staff. Ed Gale appears as Homer Stokes’ ceremonial “little man.” Three members of the Fairfield Four (Isaac Freeman, Wilson Waters Jr, and Robert Hamlett) cameo as gravediggers. The Cox Family and The Whites appear as fictionalized versions of themselves.
The idea of O Brother, Where Art Thou? arose spontaneously. Work on the script began in December 1997, long before the start of production, and was at least half-written by May 1998. Despite the fact that Ethan Coen described the Odyssey as "one of my favorite storyline schemes", neither of the brothers had read the epic, and they were only familiar with its content through adaptations and numerous references to the Odyssey in popular culture. According to the brothers, Tim Blake 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, and 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's 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's film.
Joel Coen revealed in a 2000 interview that he traveled to Phoenix 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. Clooney did not immediately understand his character and sent the script to his uncle Jack, who lived in Kentucky, asking him to read the entire script into a tape recorder. Unknown to Clooney, in his recording, Jack, a devout Baptist, omitted all instances of the words "damn" and "hell" from the Coens' script, which only became known to Clooney after the directors pointed this out to him during shooting.
This was the fourth film of the brothers in which John Turturro 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), Charles Durning (two) and Michael Badalucco (one).
The Coens used digital color correction to give the film a sepia-tinted look. Joel stated this was because the actual set was "greener than Ireland". Cinematographer Roger Deakins said, "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." Initially the crew tried to perform the color correction using a physical process, however after several tries with various chemical processes proved unsatisfactory, it became necessary to perform the process digitally.
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 spent 11 weeks fine-tuning the look, mainly targeting the greens, making them a burnt yellow and desaturating the overall image in 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 that 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. O'Daniel was in the flour business, and used a backing band called the Light Crust Doughboys on his radio show. In one campaign, 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 historical 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 singer and 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.
The music was originally conceived as a major component of the film, not merely as a background or a support. 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.
Much of the music used in the film is period-specific folk music. 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. The quartet appears 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 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 and 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". Clooney recalled at a Nashville Film Festival cast reunion in 2020 going in a studio and singing, since it was assumed as the nephew of Rosemary Clooney, he could. But he could not.
"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.
Review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes gives it a score of 78% based on 154 reviews and an average score of 7.12/10. The consensus reads: "Though not as good as Coen brothers' classics such as Blood Simple, the delightfully loopy O Brother, Where Art Thou? is still a lot of fun." The film holds an average score of 69/100 on Metacritic based on 30 reviews.
Soggy Bottom Boys
The Soggy Bottom Boys are the fictional musical group that the main characters form to serve as accompaniment for the film. It has been suggested that the name is in 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 band's hit single is Dick Burnett's "Man of Constant Sorrow", a song that had enjoyed much success prior to the movie's release. After the film's release, the fictitious band became so popular that the country and folk musicians who were dubbed into the film got together and performed the music from the film in a Down from the Mountain concert tour, which was filmed for TV and DVD. This included Ralph Stanley, John Hartford, Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, Chris Sharp, Stun Seymour, Dan Tyminski and others.
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