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Overall Rating

Awesome: 17.39%
Worth A Look: 17.39%
Pretty Bad30.43%
Total Crap: 4.35%

2 reviews, 11 user ratings

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by Stephen Groenewegen

3 stars

Songcatcher is a period drama, set in the isolated Appalachian mountains of Northern America, early last century. What sets it apart - besides the exotic, rarely filmed location - is the music. Appalachian music was America's first folk music. It came out of a clash of cultures, when the haunting ballads passed down by generations of Scots-Irish settlers were combined with African-American rhythms and instruments (like the banjo). From it grew American country music, bluegrass and - eventually - rock 'n' roll.

The film opens with musicologist Dr Lily Penleric (Janet McTeer) passed over yet again for promotion at her university. Frustrated, she travels to Appalachia to visit her sister, who's set up a school in the mountains. Penleric's field is collecting and preserving traditional songs, and she's amazed to discover the ballads she's been teaching thriving in the mountains.

Penleric becomes the songcatcher of the title - determined to "scientifically" capture these songs before they disappear. McTeer towers over the mountain-folk (the men included) and her Penleric is a severe, obsessive collector. She determinedly drags an old-fashioned gramophone (which makes spluttery recordings on wax reels) into the inaccessible reaches of the mountains. Mountain matriarch Viney Butler (a delightful Pat
Carroll) half-sings, half-shouts into the gramophone trumpet; Deladis Slocumb, an orphaned student living at the school, sings lines over and over so Penleric can notate them by hand.

Penleric gradually softens of course, partly under the influence of rugged mountain man Tom Bledsoe (Aidan Quinn) and partly by her increasing protectiveness of the mountain-folk. Their culture is under continuous threat from external corrupting forces (mining companies are trying to buy their land for miniscule sums). Eventually, despite her intention to remain an objective researcher, Penleric's life and career are irrevocably altered by the Appalachian people and their music.

Writer-director Maggie Greenwald (her last film was The Ballad of Little Jo) has taken a lot of care to make the film's setting authentic. Songcatcher was filmed in the North Carolina mountains, and all the characters do their own singing and playing (including McTeer and Quinn, who also learnt the guitar for his role). Several of the supporting cast are noted folk singers and musicians, and blues legend Taj Mahal makes an appearance. The performances (of actors and non-actors alike) are generally naturalistic and fine.

Which makes it a shame that the melodrama she's grafted onto this rich backdrop is so simplistic. Songcatcher has the worst feminist clichés - saintly women dressed in white, pioneering lesbians (whose happiness is nevertheless sacrificed to the contrivances of the plot) and a cast of men who are universally nasty, stupid or violent (generally all three).

Penleric is a fictional character, inspired by Olive Dame Campbell, an American songcatcher who travelled to the mountains with her minister husband in 1908. Greenwald's Penleric suffers being written from today's viewpoint - she's a modern conception of what a liberated woman must have been like a hundred years ago. McTeer radiated so much charm in Tumbleweeds that I hoped she could bring this cold, aloof character to life. Although we slowly gain sympathy for her cause and her situation, I never warmed to her. She isn't likeable, and it's hard to understand why she acts the way
she does.

There are also scenes in the plot that serve little dramatic purpose, or go nowhere (a priggish visitor to the school, with a wife who collects folk art, never reappears; the mining subplot peters out). The background is sketchy - it would have been nice to know how Penleric's sister ended up in the mountains in the first place. What gives the film its freshness is the music and the setting. To her credit, Greenwald doesn't fuss over the musical sequences - she captures the characters dancing and singing without intrusive editing. The film is a showcase for mountain culture - we're introduced to the local dancing ("flatfooting"), folk art and even superstitions (a sequence with the legendary "panther cat" is surprisingly chilling).

Enrique Chediak's cinematography eschews exquisite mountain vistas for a more rugged, earthy look. Despite the laboured story, Songcatcher is worth seeing to witness a location and musical culture that is as exotic to us (and most Americans) as a foreign language film.

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originally posted: 01/22/01 13:54:25
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User Comments

3/31/12 keith miron A little slow but the music was ok. Emmy Rossum sang better in The phantom of the opera 2 stars
6/12/05 Jeanne Emmy Rossum sang like an angel. Janet McTeer rocks anything she does. 4 stars
11/18/04 Tom Thompson Great mountain music... Plot seems contrived... 4 stars
7/18/04 Sheena Great, Wonderful, I am a Tarheel & a Hillybilly & PROUD of it. 5 stars
4/21/04 Jennifer A How politically correct can you get? 1 stars
1/18/04 Christopher Rahayel The film was definitely different and refreshing. Great scenery and music. 5 stars
7/12/01 Random Film is heavy handed, but worth seeing for the music and the mountain scenery. 3 stars
7/05/01 ernest weiler outstanding, fine folk music, too intimate? 5 stars
7/05/01 Suzz An enjoyable indie with fine performances all around. 4 stars
5/09/01 Fred L. Very Good, Attended a viewing that included discussion with Producer and one of the Actors. 4 stars
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  15-Jun-2001 (PG-13)


  01-Mar-2001 (M)

Directed by
  Maggie Greenwald

Written by
  Maggie Greenwald

  Janet McTeer
  Aidan Quinn
  Muse Watson
  Jane Adams
  Iris DeMent
  Taj Mahal

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