Sometimes, when you’re choosing the soundtrack for an adapted screenplay, the source material hands your songs right to you (such as in the novels High Fidelity by Nick Hornby, and American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis). And even though it’s about 2700 years old, Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey most likely did include its own soundtrack as a critical part of its performances in its original iterations. The Odyssey begins with the line “O Muse! Sing in me, and through me tell the story…” and consists of 12,110 lines of dactylic hexameter, which probably lent itself very well to a musical form. In the Coen Brothers’ loose adaptation O Brother Where Art Thou, however, the original rhyme and meter of the text (which of course, was in Greek) and the music, if it was actually preserved, have been discarded to accommodate the vernacular and musical traditions of Depression-era Mississippi.
The Film: O Brother Where Art Thou
The Song: “I’ll Fly Away” (download)
The Artist: Gillian Welch and Alison Krauss
Who’s Who: Although they hadn’t actually read The Odyssey, Joel and Ethan Coen “adapted” the screenplay and directed the film. They have collaborated on films throughout their entire career (beginning with Blood Simple and Raising Arizona), and most of their films are oddball comedies or film noir suffused with dark humor. The Coen brothers have had little apprehension about delving into historical eras to tell their tales, and O Brother Where Art Thou is one of their most vivid examples of this.
Coen Brothers staple Stephen Root introduces the song as an unnamed disc jockey (blind, in a redundant parallel to the prophet Tiresias in the original text) at the radio station WEZY in the midst of isolated farmland in the Mississippi flats. Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney), who provides the film’s equivalent of Odysseus, leads his companions Pete (John Turturro) and Delmar (Timothy Blake Nelson) on a mythical quest for a fortune that will be submerged beneath a new reservoir should they fail to reach their destination within a few short days.
Like many of the other songs on the soundtracks, “I’ll Fly Away” is a traditional song that was re-recorded with contemporary artists. Gillian Welch is a bluegrass singer and guitarist who is featured singing “Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby” (download) in the Sirens scene that follows the sequence featuring “I’ll Fly Away.” She also appears in this scene in a cameo, as the woman inquiring about the Soggy Bottom Boys record. Alison Krauss, who joins her in both songs, is also a bluegrass singer and fiddle player, with an overwhelming 20 Grammy awards to her name.
Why it Works: Most of the music in O Brother Where Art Thou, rather than being used as an alternative vehicle for telling the story, serves to provide a sense of history and atmosphere. “I’ll Fly Away,” on the other hand, actually incorporates a few lines into the lyrics that are appropriate for what’s happening specifically to the characters in the film.
Like a bird from these prison walls I’ll fly…
The three are on the run from prison, and the sequence wastes little time reminding us of this point as a truck full of prisoners passes and the men attempt to remain inconspicuous.
No more cold iron shackles on my feet…
The actual leg irons which served to bind Ulysses to his companions at the beginning of the film, and were the primary motivation for including Delmar and Pete in his quest, were left behind shortly after his ill-fated and amusing attempt to find a “smithy” amongst a group of tramps riding on a freight train. And yet their partnership endures, primarily driven by Ulysses’ promises of a treasure to be found at the end of their road.
There’s a lot of information that gets conveyed in this sequence. The date (July 13, 1937), the location (Satartia, Mississippi), reminders as to the imminent flooding of the valley where their fortune supposedly lies, Ulysses’ loquacious nature and affinity for Dapper Dan pomade (the scent of which the sheriff’s hounds have been using to track the men) — all this is tucked into the scene with admirable subtlety.
Allison Kraus and Gillian Welch’s light voices and the music of the song convey a general sense of innocence, and this is mirrored in the film. When the boys “steal” a pie, Delmar leaves a bill behind to pay for it. Their mirth around the campfire as they eat, and the simple joy of their journey, is a welcome respite from the peril of their situation. And as the song concludes, the men have fallen from grace once again, as they steal a car to hurry themselves along in their quest – and hasten their misfortunes as they race towards their encounters with the Sirens and the Cyclops.
What Goes Wrong: Even for a lighthearted montage such as this, the actors ham it up too much when the prison truck passes. If I were driving a truck full or prisoners and someone took such obvious pains to conceal their faces, I’d probably be pretty curious.
Other Stuff: If you’re in a lousy mood, watch this movie. It is simply one of the most uplifting films I’ve ever seen.