It's Not Just The Thin Air That's Breathtaking: The Documentary 'Mountain'

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

"Climb Every Mountain," "Rocky Mountain High," "Night On Bald Mountain" - music and mountains have long been linked in the public imagination. Critic Bob Mondello says a documentary called "Mountain" finds a new sort of purity in the connection.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: One of the first images is a solo climber hanging onto the face of a cliff hundreds of feet up untethered. He's in sneakers, a red T-shirt, entirely without ropes or special gear, every inch of him understandably plastered against the rock. He reaches up with one hand to a stone nub maybe as wide as the first joint of his index finger, tests it for a moment, then lets go with his other hand. And as he shifts his legs into a newly precarious position, the camera, which must be on a drone, swings to one side and captures the very start of a smile. And all I could think was, he's nuts. You could be a mountain goat and think this is crazy. And heart-stopping as it is, it turns out to be just a prelude.

Director Jennifer Peedom has orchestrated to alternately ethereal and percussive music from the Australian Chamber Orchestra a rhapsodic feature-length aria of altitude - majestic snow-capped peaks, rugged cliffs long uncharted and regarded as places of peril until, as Willem Dafoe's narrator puts it, an Age of Exploration led to the blank spaces on maps getting filled in.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "MOUNTAIN")

WILLEM DAFOE: (As Narrator) The imperial aim was to grid, girdle and name the upper world...

MONDELLO: A nice phrase that.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "MOUNTAIN")

DAFOE: (As Narrator) ...To replace mystery with mastery.

MONDELLO: An even nicer phrase adapted by Robert McFarlane from his memoir "Mountains Of The Mind," accompanied by startling century-old black and white footage of corseted women rock climbing in heels, hats and ankle-length dresses among the many adventurers we'll see Not just scaling cliffs but biking atop peaks that come to sharp points, snowboarding off helicopters, soaring in wing suits that turn daredevils into flying squirrels.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "MOUNTAIN")

DAFOE: (As Narrator) How has it come to this - the mountains as a stage set for a pumped-up poker game of high stakes and high returns all driven by big brains and online views?

MONDELLO: Then there'll be a montage of people - thankfully tethered - slipping, falling, caught by ropes to dangle from stone outcroppings thousands of feet in the air. You'd have to be made of stone not to gasp, especially if, like me, you have a fear of heights and will never clamber up, schuss down or otherwise risk life and limb on Purple Mountain's majesty. At the film's outset, words on the screen say, those who dance are considered mad by those who cannot hear the music - have to say that those who climb still strike me as mad, but "Mountain" let me hear the music. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUSTRALIAN CHAMBER ORCHESTRA PERFORMANCE OF ARVO PART'S "FRATRES")

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