O Brother, Where Art Thou?

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Details At A Glance

Category Musical Comedy None
Rating m.gif (1166 bytes)
Year Released 2000
Running Time 102:48 Minutes
RSDL/Flipper RSDL (49:54)
Cast & Crew
Start Up Movie
Region 2,4 Director Joel Coen
Universal.gif (3614 bytes)
Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment
Starring George Clooney
John Turturro
Tim Blake Nelson
John Goodman
Holly Hunter
Chris Thomas King
Case Transparent Amaray
RPI $36.95 Music T-Bone Burnett
Various Others

Pan & Scan/Full Frame None English (Dolby Digital 5.1, 384Kb/s)
German (Dolby Digital 5.1, 384Kb/s)
Italian (Dolby Digital 5.1, 384Kb/s)
Spanish (Dolby Digital 2.0 , 192Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 2.35:1
16x9 Enhancement
16x9Yes.jpg (4536 bytes)
Original Aspect Ratio 2.40:1
Macrovision Yes Smoking No
Subtitles English
Annoying Product Placement Yes, very mildly
Action In or After Credits No, unfortunately

Plot Synopsis

    In short: the best mix of musical, comedy, and adventure I've seen since The Blues Brothers (which is high praise indeed).

    I had to make quite an effort to convince not only myself, but members of my family into the bargain, to see O Brother, Where Art Thou? theatrically. After one viewing at the ultra-modern Greater Union megaplex at Castle Hill, and a subsequent viewing at the Village Roxy theatre in Parramatta, which is a top contender for being the eldest in this country, I was very glad I made the effort. O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a delightful journey back in time to the days when AM radio was one of the most technological appliances one could find in the home, and it took some actual talent to be broadcast upon it. The film is basically an attempt by Joel and Ethan Coen to transplant Homer's epic poem The Odyssey into the America of the 1930s, and one that has been met with mixed critical reaction, at that.

    The film begins with Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney), Pete Hogwallop (John Turturro), and Delmar O'Donnel (Tim Blake Nelson) escaping from a chain gang that is situated out in the middle of nowhere. Ulysses has told his travelling companions that he has hidden the loot from one of his criminal exploits, but they must get to it within a certain amount of time or it will be lost forever, mainly because the house the loot is in happens to be situated in a valley that will soon be flooded to make a new dam. As they travel with a blind seer (Lee Weaver), the seer informs them that they will find fortune at the end of the road they are travelling, but it won't be in the form they are expecting. The first stop along the road travelled by this threesome of idiots is the farmhouse of Pete's brother, Wash (Frank Collison), who promptly calls the police in order to obtain the much-needed reward money. After escaping from this tight spot, the three then cross paths with a singing congregation of Baptists, which prompts Pete and Delmar to get baptized. As Ulysses, Pete, and Delmar argue about the redeeming value of their baptisms, they cross paths with Tommy Johnson (Chris Thomas King), who informs them that he's sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for incomparable musical talent. He also advises them that there is a radio station nearby, run by a blind man (Stephen Root) who will pay musicians good money to record their music for broadcast over the airwaves. For a bit of a lark, and for the money, Ulysses, Pete, Delmar, and Tommy record I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow at the radio station, under the name of The Soggy Bottom Boys.

    From there, Tommy parts ways with the three convicts, and the latter group journey to the town where Ulysses used to live, meeting up with famed bank robber George Nelson (Michael Badalucco) and a threesome of sirens (Mia Tate, Musetta Vander, and Christy Taylor) along the way. The encounter with the three sirens is especially problematic for our heroes, as they wake up the next day to discover a toad in Delmar's place. After a rather nasty encounter with a bible salesman by the name of Dan Teague (John Goodman), they are soon reunited with Delmar in a hilarious theatre sequence. In town, we meet up with Penny Wharvey (Holly Hunter), who is about to divorce Ulysses and marry Vernon Waldrip (Ray McKinnon), who, as she puts it, is "bona fide". Naturally, Ulysses is not particularly happy about this, and would do anything to prevent these two events from taking place. It is here that we are introduced to a sub-plot with incumbent Mississippi governor Pappy O'Daniel (Charles Durning) being thoroughly trounced in the polls by Homer Stokes (Wayne Duvall). Pappy O'Daniel is losing public popularity because he feels that things in the state of Mississippi are just fine, and that business should just go on as usual, while Homer Stokes is pushing a campaign of reform that has caught the public's imagination. I'm sure by now that you're probably thinking this is a lot of events to cram into the one film, and you're very right, but this is partly what makes O Brother, Where Art Thou? so enjoyable. The stories of numerous people are woven together with such fervour that its entertaining to just sit down and work out who is doing what to whom for what reason.

    I can never stress this enough: I enjoyed this film to a surprising and great degree. If you haven't seen it in the theatre, which would be a great pity in and of itself, then waste no time in getting your hands on this disc, as there are few films that make the case for widescreen projection and multi-channel audio like this one does. Even when there seems to be nothing going on in most of the frame, the 2.35:1 ratio is used to its greatest possible effect, and I doubt that the music of the 1930s could ever sound this good again without similar re-recording efforts. This is well and truly the kind of film that DVD-Video was made for, so go out and buy it already.

Transfer Quality


    O Brother, Where Art Thou? was shot using Super 35 film stocks and lenses, with a variety of unusual photographic effects thrown in for good measure. I'm not entirely sure whether Universal Pictures or Touchstone Pictures should be held responsible for this transfer, but I was ever so slightly disappointed. I suspect that this is partly because I had very high expectations going in.

    The film is presented in an aspect ratio of 2.35:1, and as one would rightly expect, it is 16x9 Enhanced. The sharpness of this transfer is simply excellent, with every minuscule detail in each shot being clearly focused and easy to make out. Sometimes, the unusual colour schemes and photographic techniques would get in the way, but this was forgivable in light of the effect these elements had. The shadow detail of this transfer varies slightly, once again because of the photographic and colour effects, but it was mostly excellent. There was no low-level noise.

    The colour saturation of this transfer is quite variable, although this is more an intentional effect on the part of the Coen brothers than any fault of the transfer itself. Numerous scenes, such as the introduction and the arrival at the Hogwallop farm, have a curious sort of sepia tone to them that is reminiscent of surviving photos from the era being depicted. Others, such as the second escape from the work farm, have an almost monochromatic appearance that dates back to a similar era, giving the film an additional sense of atmosphere. During the sepia-toned scenes, blacks are more a murky deep brown, and during the monochromatic scenes, the skin tones become completely white, but this just adds to the effect.

    MPEG artefacts were not a problem for this transfer. Film-to-video artefacts consisted of some aliasing that was usually only mildly distracting in spite of some really shocking instances such as at 1:05, where the clouds in the sky shimmered. The worst instance of this artefact came late in the film at 97:31, as George Clooney and Holly Hunter pass a series of shutters with horizontal vents in them. If you can cope with this artefact and the more distracting ones in the first fifteen minutes of the film, then your patience will be rewarded. Film artefacts consisted of a number of nicks and scratches that definitely weren't intentional, but they just added to the rustic, old-age atmosphere of the feature, anyway.

    This disc makes use of the RSDL format, with the layer change taking place in the middle of Chapter 12, after Charles Durning screams "shaddap" at his campaign staff at 49:54. The pause is a little jarring and noticeable, but it beats the hell out of it having been placed in the middle of a musical cue.


    Continuing the ever-so-slight disappointment in the transfer stakes is an audio transfer that, while having numerous demonstration moments, also contains a lot of missed opportunities. Then again, considering that a lot of the music in this film was originally recorded on wax cylinders that have the sort of fidelity that makes the MP3 format sound live (yes, I have heard some of them), I suppose a 5.1 version of every song might sound just a tad too odd.

    There are a total of four soundtracks on this DVD: the original English dialogue, a French dub, and an Italian dub, all in Dolby Digital 5.1 with a bitrate of 384 kilobits per second. The last soundtrack on the disc is a Spanish dub in Dolby Digital 2.0 with surround-encoding and a bitrate of 192 kilobits per second. I think I would have preferred 448 kilobit per second soundtracks, just to preserve the fidelity, but then, the music in this film and terms like fidelity were mutually exclusive until the soundtrack CD was made available recently. I listened to the default English soundtrack, and sampled selected passages from the Italian and Spanish dubs just to see how different they sounded.

    The dialogue is generally quite easy to make out, with one minor caveat: you have to adjust somewhat to the slow drawl that the actors use, and the film was made in such a way as to allow for this. Once the first reel of the film is done with, the dialogue seems more natural and understandable, making the effort to adjust to the 1930s mode of speech worthwhile. The vocals of the musical numbers vary in intelligibility according to the singer, with the opening song by James Carter and The Prisoners being surprisingly clear, while other numbers such as the singing during the Klan meeting being hard to distinguish. The intelligibility of the vocals in these songs was merely in accordance with the mood that the makers seemed to want to convey during those sequences, so no complaints there.

    The music in this film comes from a vast variety of sources, many of whom, such as Chris Thomas King, Mia Tate, Musetta Vander, and Christy Taylor, make appearances. During the Great Depression era, this was the music of the people, much like the Blues in the 1950s or much of the music from the 1970s and 1990s that I've reviewed lately. Some of the music makes the film seem funnier, some of it will have you singing along or picking up a guitar and playing along, while some of the music, such as that featured in the sirens sequence, will leave you will your mouth hanging open (not necessarily because of the music, though).

    The surround channels were used in one of two ways during various sequences. During a few sequences, they barely got any use at all in spite of the fact that there was ample opportunity to demonstrate Dolby Digital as a surround codec for a musical. The first performance of I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow at 23:34, and the moment when we see the three sirens at 41:23 are the best examples of this, being two moments when the soundtrack collapsed into the front channels. Granted, these scenes only offered minimal opportunities to utilize the rears and create a more immersive sound field, but even minimal surround usage is better than the complete silence I heard even when I put my ear to one rear speaker. On the same token, numerous other opportunities to create a great demonstration of surround sound were milked to their fullest extent, with the first great example coming at 70:05 during the Klan gathering. Another great example of combined surround and subwoofer usage occurred at 75:33, when John Goodman catches the flagpole, but my personal favourite example of surround usage on this DVD is the second performance of I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow at 80:56. The audience's cheering, the backing band, and the vocals all sounded clear and precisely directed during this sequence, even in comparison to the exhibition at the ultra-modern Castle Hill megaplex where I first saw this film.

    As previously hinted at, the subwoofer also received a good workout from this film, supporting the sounds of machine guns, cars, trains, music, the impact of a flying flagpole, and even a rush of water. It supported all of these effects and more in an aggressive and inconspicuous fashion, even being just a little bit better integrated into the soundtrack than the surround channels.

    Overall, this audio transfer is somewhat flawed in comparison to films of similar vintage, but you'll be hard-pressed to find a more satisfying musical experience outside of classics like The Blues Brothers.


    Not a single extra, not even a lousy theatrical trailer, isolated music soundtrack, or six-minute making of featurette. Come on, Universal, this is a less than year old film we are talking about here - surely it couldn't have been that hard to put something on this DVD to extend this disc's shelf life? Especially when you consider what is on the Region 1 version (more on this shortly), and the fact that it is being distributed there by Buena Vista, of all people.


    It's static, it has those awful Universal Pictures icons I've so grown to despise, and it doesn't even feature audio accompaniment. On the good side, it is very much 16x9 Enhanced.


    On the positive side, this film is most certainly uncensored in comparison to the theatrical exhibition.

R4 vs R1

    [Addendum June 14, 2001: O'Brother, Where Art Thou? has been released in the United Kingdom by Momentum Pictures - thanks to an anonymous reader in the ol' Blighty for the heads-up. I have therefore rewritten this comparison to show the respective advantages and disadvantages of the three currently available releases in English-speaking territories.]

Region (Distributor)

Video Transfer Quality

Audio Transfer Quality


Region 4
(Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment)
Very good, but falls short of reference status because of problems with aliasing and film artefacts. Also very good, but also falls short due to underutilisation of the surround channels at key moments. None.
Region 2
(Momentum Pictures)
Shimmering is still noted in the clouds according to DVD Debate, but they also report that the print used to make the transfer is a cleaner one with less film artefacts. The Region 2 audio transfer features Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtracks with higher bitrates. These soundtracks reportedly use the surround channels in a slightly less sporadic fashion.
  • Theatrical Trailer
  • TV Spots
  • Animated Menus
  • Interviews with George Clooney, Tim Blake Nelson, John Tuturro, Holly Hunter, Michael Badalucco, Chris Thomas King, and the Coen brothers.
Region 1
(Touchstone Pictures)
Widescreen Review describe this disc as having an excellent visual transfer with no serious artefacts, giving it a rating of 4.5 out of 5. The Region 1 audio transfer also features a DTS 5.1 soundtrack, which reportedly offers a more detailed and enveloping sound field, although it is still not quite reference quality.
  • Two storyboard-to-scene comparisons
  • Making-of featurette
  • Music Video for I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow;
  • A segment about the cinematography
  • Theatrical Trailer.

    At first, I was quite upset that the abundance of extras that could be found on the Region 1 disc were completely absent from the local disc. Now that I have found out what we miss out on in comparison to the Region 2 disc, I am even more upset. We have been quite thoroughly short-changed in the extras stakes, not to mention that the video transfer we have received is a slight disappointment, but which disc to recommend? If you're after a DVD with a reference quality video transfer, then Region 1 is the nearest thing you're going to get, and the inclusion of a 754 kilobit-per-second DTS soundtrack can only improve upon the rather inconsistent sound presentation we have received here. The extras packages make it slightly harder to decide which is the better disc, with the interviews and the music video keeping the scales see-sawing in my view. In either case, some of you out there will be giving the Region 4 disc as released by Universal Pictures through Columbia Tristar the thumbs down.


    O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a fine musical based upon the actual music of the people from a time that may well be best left in the dark past, and a comedy that I have no hesitation in recommending to anyone who wants to hear fine music, have a good laugh, or both.

    The video transfer is very good, denied reference status only by problems with aliasing and film artefacts.

    The audio transfer is also very good, but a lot of missed opportunities deny it that hallowed reference status.

    We have been thoroughly stiffed on the extras.

Ratings (out of 5)

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© Dean McIntosh (my bio sucks... read it anyway)
June 13, 2001

Review Equipment
DVD Toshiba SD-2109, using S-video output
Display Samsung CS-823AMF (80 cm) in 16:9 and 4:3 modes, calibrated using the NTSC DVD version of Video Essentials.
Audio Decoder Built In (Amplifier)
Amplification Sony STR-DE835, calibrated using the NTSC DVD version of Video Essentials.
Speakers Yamaha NS-45 Front Speakers, Yamaha NS-90 Rear Speakers, Yamaha NS-C120 Centre Speaker, JBL Digital 10 Active Subwoofer