June 28–July 5, 2001
Gather at the River: A Bluegrass Celebration
Hopefully it won’t seem too much of a slur against Robert Mugge’s well-made bluegrass overview when I say that the most fascinating thing about the reissue of this 1994 film is the sticker that comes plastered onto the DVD’s case: "As heard in the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?, bluegrass is America’s most popular form of roots music." The "as heard in…" blurb is a familiar marketing tool, but its use here is initially bewildering; Gather at the River includes only one artist (Ralph Stanley) heard in O Brother, and not a single common song. In other words, what the blurb really means is "Remember that music you heard in that movie you liked? This is kinda like that."
Bewildering, but, on reflection, not surprising: O Brother’s soundtrack album is a genuine phenomenon, spawning a sold-out Carnegie Hall concert, another in Nashville — itself the subject of the D.A. Pennebaker documentary Down From the Mountain— and helping the film become the Coens’ most successful ever. Even the recent video screening at the Trocadero set attendance records.
So what’s up with that? Best guess: O Brother does for traditional American music what Crouching Tiger does for martial arts movies — takes traditional, time-tested tropes and boils them down, recontextualizing them for a contemporary audience. It’s not unlike the way O Brother’s visual style was achieved, digitally de-saturating the film’s colors to create its dust-blown vistas — the ultra-modern deployed in the service of the pseudo-vintage. (The process is explained in detail on O Brother’s recent DVD, although the featurette plays like an infomercial for the film’s post-production studio.)
It only makes sense that folks alienated by aggressively soulless, plasticated teen pop would run in the other direction — hey, if Entertainment Weekly says the teen boom is over, who wants to muster the evidence to argue? But it’s unlikely audiences lured in by the Coens’ Depression-era "Pirates of the Caribbean" will stick around to explore the sounds of originals like Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley, Del McCoury, Hazel Dickens and so on. (Or that they’ll flock to the hopelessly square Songcatcher, opening this week, which pays far more earnest homage to mountain music.) Who knows, though? Dolly Parton’s return to the music of her youth singlehandedly revived her career, so if even a few of O Brother’s fans make the leap, they’ll find a lot waiting for them.
For those willing to spend a little more time in bluegrass-land, Gather at the River is an excellent road map. Shot at the 1993 World of Bluegrass festival in Owensboro, KY, the film is mainly a showcase for performances by Stanley, McCoury, Dickens, Doc Watson, the Nashville Bluegrass Band and Tim O’Brien. Peter Rowan serves as both performer and tour guide, enlightening with both his music and his words. Like all of Mugge’s films, Gather at the River is a no-frills affair, but its rough-hewn style meshes with the music it depicts.
The first of three volumes in New Line’s John Waters Collection, this well-appointed two-disc set will help assuage the wounds left by Cecil B. Demented. True, the disappointing Pecker suffers from the same toothlessness that made Cecil such a redundant exercise, but at least it’s got Christina Ricci. And Hairspray, the best of Waters’ "nice" movies, is a pop-trawling delight. An affectionate ode to the teen-dance TV shows of Waters’ youth, the film stars Ricki Lake (in her first role) as Tracy Turnblad, a headstrong teen who goes up against racism, class boundaries and body-image tyranny when she wins a spot as a dancer on the Buddy Dean Show, dancing to "race music" in front of all of Baltimore. About as close as Waters will ever get to a message movie, Hairspray still comes with its share of playful vulgarity, but it’s as cartoonish as Divine’s beehive. Both discs feature Waters’ consistently amusing commentary, with the bonus of Ricki Lake’s reflections on Hairspray.
(Sat., June 30, 8 p.m., $5, 1508 South St., 215-545-4511, www.voicenet.com/~jschwart. )
I was lucky enough to be at the Secret Cinema screening where the trailer for this shoestring 1970s exploitation flick worked its magic on the crowd. Repeatedly proclaiming "It’s a movie!," the Record City spot promised a world of garish hues and off-color jokes, as well as an all-has-been cast: Frank Gorshin, Ruth Buzzi, Rick Dees, Larry Storch, Ed Begley Jr., even the guy who played Oddjob (whose son, incidentally, can be seen in the Guy Ritchie-directed BMW spot drawing way too much attention from supposedly serious movie critics.) If it’s one-tenth absurd as its trailer suggests, Record City should be a can’t-miss evening of abortive jokes and miscalculated hipness. That’s meant to sound appealing.