Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 1:52 - Released 12/1/00 (Local Release: 9/21/01)
After being passed over (again) for a professorship at the
University of North Carolina, Dr. Lily Penleric (Janet McTeer)
decides to set out on her own and visit her sister Eleanor (Jane
Adams), who runs a school in the remote mountain town of Clover.
At first oblivious to the fact that Eleanor and her teaching partner,
Harriet (E. Katherine Kerr) are lovers, Lily is enraptured with
the songs sung by a teenage girl named Deladis Slocumb (Emmy Rossum),
songs which Lily knows are derived from ancient English ballads.
Soon she has obtained a grant from the university to study the
local music, and is trudging from cabin to cabin documenting songs
like "Barbara Allen," "Two Sisters," and "Conversation
With Death," even going so far as to record the locals singing
on phonograph cylinders.
Though the backwoods population, wary of outsiders, at first
suspect Lily's intentions, most of them eventually come around,
reveling in the attention she pays them and in the magic of the
amazing recording device. One of her most reliable sources turns
out to be an aging woman named Viney Butler (Pat Carroll), but
Viney's grandson Tom (Aidan Quinn) isn't as welcoming, seeing
Lily as nothing more than a big-city snob with plans to exploit
the age-old traditions of the country folk. It is not long until
Lily and Tom reconcile their differences, but even as they begin
to fall in love, violence erupts when Eleanor's secret is discovered.
While this film is remarkably genuine in its recreation of early 20th-c. mountain society and its music (old timers will no doubt recall many of the ballads sung), and the a capella singing is raw and earnest, the plot of the film is rather dry and uncompelling to anyone not already versed in its subject matter. True, there are other aspects of the story than just the collection of songs, but these elements are largely glossed over and underdeveloped. For instance, the two women who run the school turn out to be the catalyst for the film's major turning point, but little is known about them or their teaching style. Though we see them interacting as lovers, we never see them in class, which seems the more important aspect of their characters given the film's conclusion. Moreover, the character of Lily is explored as a scholar and a scientist, but not really as a woman; her personality seems overly clinical until a sudden event occurs which seems to change everything about her. This character reversal seems to happen among many of the cast members; writer/director Greenwald seems so involved in period verisimilitude that she occasionally tends to overlook human nature. Still, Songcatcher is better than 75% of films in theaters today, blending the earthy integrity of the rural poor with the honest performances of a talented cast. ****