directed by Maggie Greenwald
(Lions Gate, 1999)

Deep, deep in the forests of Appalachia, with mountains and hidden hollows concealing their secrets, lies a treasure for Dr. Lily Penleric. Not gold, certainly. And not the coal coveted by other outsiders.

But songs. The music professor, up against a chauvinistic wall at her university, has stumbled across a trove of musical history buried in a region that's snubbed by everyone else as full of savages, "ruffians" and illiterate drunks. No one else knows these songs still exist in their purest form.

For Lily, a "songcatcher," it's a professional dream, a breath of freedom in a field that's blocking her advancement at every turn because she's a woman. She will record the singers, fiddlers and banjo pickers, collect her wax-roll recordings and her notated music, go back down the mountain and publish the mountaineers' music.

The woman ignored by her colleagues will be a voice for people ignored by the rushing advancement of modern times.

Directed and written by Maggie Greenwald, Songcatcher is a combination of lofty goals and incredible music performances. One pays off. The other struggles mightily, but never really drew me in.

Greenwald has set out to capture the mountain people of 100 years ago, some of whom have been to the cities to work in the mines or "get educated," but the vast majority of whom have never been off the mountain where they were born. And what she's attempting -- to show the hardship, as well as the independence, the pride, the stubbornness and the creativity of being self-reliant -- has sparks of real wonder.

But the harder Songcatcher tries to pull us into the lives of this slice of Appalachia, the more of an outsider I felt. It's not the performances, per se -- Janet McTeer as Lily is suitably professorial; Aidan Quinn as Tom, the reluctant love interest, fits his role naturally.

They're joined by a wonderfully understated Pat Carroll -- whom I remember from 1970s talk shows; where's she been since? -- as Viney, Tom's grandmother and a resource of almost every traditional ballad, and a stunning-voiced Emmy Rossum as Deladis, a young woman who becomes Lily's assistant.

But I never get drawn into the Lily-Tom relationship, and it's cluttered by a philandering husband, a covert lesbian love, a school burning, a harrowing childbirth ... too many secrets tumbling out to clutter the story, and, for every occasion, a song. The transition from story to song isn't always the smoothest.

But it's those songs that save Songcatcher. I'd rent it just to hear Iris DeMent, or Taj Mahal, or Rossum's voice, so perfect for a tune like "Barbara Allen." And when Lily heads back down the mountain, it's not for a traditional marriage or her stifling university career but as a woman with a little more spirited independence and confidence in her ideas than she had heading up the mountain.

You can see, from the first note Deladis sings, why Lily is stunned, why she becomes obsessed and why she's convinced others will love the music, too.

[ by Jen Kopf ]
Rambles: 4 May 2002

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