Documentary filmmaker DA Pennebaker committed Bob Dylan's cue-card version of Subterranean Homesick Blues and Jimi Hendrix's Stratocaster barbecue to celluloid, two iconic moments in the history of rock.
Now, in partnership with filmmakers Chris Hegedus and Nick Dobbs, he has turned his attention to country music.
In May 2000, Mr. Pennebaker, Ms. Hegedus and Mr. Dobbs filmed a concert featuring acts that appeared on the soundtrack to the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? The meeting of bluegrass minds, with the Fairfield Four, Ralph Stanley and other classic artists joining their musical heirs, including Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch, was appropriately staged at the historic Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tenn. The movie, Down From the Mountain, opens today at the Augusta Exchange 20.
Since the concert, the O Brother soundtrack has sparked something of a revolution in bluegrass and classic country music. In a recent telephone interview, Mr. Pennebaker and Ms. Hegedus expressed amazement at the steel-guitar-and-fiddle tidal wave they have found their film swept up in.
"It's kind of shocking," Ms. Hegedus said. "It's sort of like what happened when Buena Vista Social Club came out and everybody went out to buy that music. I think with this a lot of it is because there is something very authentic and heartfelt about the music and how it is performed."
"There is a mystical quality to it," Mr. Pennebaker added. "There is also a lot of Hula-Hoop (faddishness) in it. As filmmakers, we're just toilers in the field. We couldn't figure out what people want with all the research in the world. So, when we happen on something like this, we like to say it's because we have a really well-made film, which is, of course, foolishness."
Although it appears that the filmmakers did little more than watch events unfold in front of the camera, Mr. Pennebaker said there is a real art to making a documentary.
"You really have to understand how to get it," he said. "You can't just put a camera on a tripod and record. You have to really move in there and film with the same kind of energy and volatility that people perform with.
"You have to do things that might be considered intrusive. If you can do that, and get the performer to accept it, then you can capture the kind of performance people want to see, but rarely do. You can actually add to the performance."
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