Despite playing the musical folk hero Ulysses Everett McGill in the Coen Brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou?, George Clooney cannot carry a tune -- which he realized quite brutally during an early audition.
The Music of 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?'
Joel Coen and Ethan Coen's O Brother, Where Art Thou? transports the Homer's Odyssey into Great Depression-era rural Mississippi. In this satirical reboot, George Clooney stars as convict Ulysses Everett McGill who escapes a chain gang on a quest for buried treasure. Two fellow inmates, Pete (John Turturro) and Delmar O'Donnell (Tim Blake Nelson), accompany Ulysses on the wild Southern journey which takes them to the heights of fame. The trio, known as The Soggy Bottom Boys, become a major bluegrass sensation... whilst battling suitors, sorceresses, a one-eyed Bible salesman, and even the Ku Klux Klan. And for those of you who still aren't convinced to check out this wacky reimagining of The Odyssey, Chris Thomas King, John Goodman, Holly Hunter, and Charles Durning also appear in supporting roles.
However, it's not just the star-studded cast that O Brother, Where Art Thou? is remembered. Upon its release date in late 2000, the movie's unique and vivid sound emerged to secure its own unique place in American culture.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? premiered on December 22, 2000. And despite average box office returns (and lukewarm reviews), a cult fandom quickly arose. It appeared that, most of all, audiences were intensely drawn to the movie's unique sound. In fact, the Coen brothers film galvanized what's come to be recognized as a historic folk music revival. In 2002, the soundtrack won the coveted Grammy Award for Album of the Year. Established folk and country music musicians Gillian Welch, Ralph Stanley, John Hartford, Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris, and Chris Sharp had all contributed to the project, which was produced by the legendary T Bone Burnett. This careful project showcased tunes that were true to the time period, pulling from African American traditions, Baptist and gospel music, as well as Appalachian dirges, country swing, early delta blues, and most notably bluegrass.
The score is mainly diegetic, meaning that songs played throughout the film really occur within the events of the story. As such, that magnificent blend of music in O Brother, Where Art Thou? is associated most prominently with The Soggy Bottom Boys, the movie's fictional musical act... implying some direct involvement from the famous crooning faces like George Clooney and John Turturro. When in fact, the only Soggy Bottom Boy who lent real vocals was co-star Tim Blake Nelson -- and that was only for one song, "In the Jailhouse Now."
But that was not for Clooney's lack of trying.
George Clooney... Lip Syncing!
After signing on to the Coen Brothers movie, George Clooney still had to prove he could sing. And the actor recalled that embarrassing try-out in great detail last year for a virtual O Brother, Where Art Thou? reunion, hosted by Variety. He explained:
"They assumed I could sing because my aunt was Rosemary Clooney, and I assumed I could sing. And then we got in there, and they're behind the glass desk, it's Joel, T Bone and Ethan. And I really worked hard at it, and then I sang it and I looked up and no one would look up... And they thought if I listened to it, I'd understand. And I'm listening to it, and it literally sounds like a cat caught in the wheel well of a truck driving down the street."
Clooney, of course, was referring to his celebrity aunt Rosemary Clooney who was a popular singer throughout the 1950s. You also might remember her, more specifically, from the classic Bing Crosby film White Christmas. But sadly, it seems, that strong voice does not run in the family. Instead, to play the Soggy Bottom Boys leading man, Clooney was dubbed over by the country bluegrass singer Dan Tyminski. And clearly, the Coen Brothers did not mind. Clooney teamed up with the creative duo again, in 2016, for Hail, Caesar!
Listen to "Man of Constant Sorrow," the film's breakout hit, above. And watch Clooney mouthing the words oh-so-convincingly.