Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 1:52 - Released 12/1/00 (Local Release: 9/21/01)

Another low-budget, big-integrity, independent film struggling its way through the U.S. theater circuit many months after its original release, Songcatcher delivers a dose of backwoods Americana with the same kind of scary-yet-fascinating charm as Deliverance or Boys Don't Cry, but since it deals more with musicology than murder, it doesn't pack quite the same emotional punch as those films. Telling the story of a female music professor in the early 20th century who hikes into the rural mountains of North Carolina to collect and document local folk music and its ancient European derivations, the film has heart but lacks the kind of story and character development necessary to thoroughly engage an audience. Writer/director Maggie Greenwald (The Ballad of Little Jo) is obviously a stickler for period authenticity; her film foregoes the glitz of Hollywood for the grit of life in the Appalachian Mountains, and the product is as real as they come. But there is an emotional sterility to the characters and the subject matter may be of little interest to anyone but musicologists, lesbians, or fans of old-timey country love songs.

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. ****

Copyright 2001 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

Current | Archives | Oscars | About | E-Mail