Songcatcher
review by Gianni Truzzi, 22 June 2001

Maggie Greenwald's new film opens to show Dr. Lily Penleric accompanying herself on the piano, singing in a light, almost operatic style, the tragic ballad Barbara Allen. When done, Penleric instructs her all-male class that they should pay attention to the feeling of the song, not just the music. Yet, her relationship to the music she researches is cold and analytical, in the scientific fashion of 1907 musicology, rigidly cataloguing each piece by number.

Penleric (played by Golden Globe-winning Janet McTeer, for Tumbleweeds) is, we find, a woman of fiery passion, willing to engage in a torrid but empty affair with a married professor. Even so, her exchanges with others are stiff, rigid and quietly judgmental. She directs her slow-simmering rage at her male colleagues in the North Carolina college who repeatedly pass her over for promotion.

She escapes to visit her sister Elna (Jane Adams), who, in the do-gooding manner of the progressive era, has helped found a school in the remote Appalachian hills. In these piney woods, she hears an orphaned schoolgirl, Deladis (Emmy Rossum), singing the same song. But this Barbara Allen sounds different; twisted with despair, a lilting wail in the shape-notes, the tragic words spring to life: "Oh mother, mother, make my bed / Make it soft and narrow / Sweet William died, for love of me / And I shall of sorrow."

What Lily's scholarly ears hear is an academic treasure. She is excited by the idea that she could be hearing the song preserved in the style Samuel Pepys would have heard it in 1666, when he noted "the little Scottish tune" in his diaries. Lily begins to catalogue all of the songs Deladis knows and then combs the mountains for more. She carts a preposterously huge wax-cylinder phonograph through the hills and damp hollers to make field recordings. As she is resisted, then embraced by the locals, she learns to appreciate their culture where "music is a part of everyday life," but also learns how it's threatened by the encroaching world.

Like her last acclaimed feature, The Ballad of Little Jo, Greenwald mixes her story with feminist polemic, showing us a strong woman trying to compete with men in a time when this could be dangerous. Greenwald seems more interested in the women, such as Viney Butler (delightfully played by veteran actor Pat Carroll), the thorny backwoods midwife that befriends Lily, or the discomforting relationship Elna has with her fellow schoolteacher, Harriet Tolliver (E. Katherine Kerr). Less well rounded is Viney's grandson, Tom Bledsoe (Aidan Quinn) who initially berates Lily for "exploiting" the hill people, but later (and all-too predictably) becomes her love interest.

The success of O Brother Where Art Thou, and the interest it revived in old-time music, is likely what allows us to see this lyrical film. Although Songcatcher premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2000, it languished for lack of a distributor. While that's the film's good fortune, it will also suffer from unfair (since it really was filmed first) comparisons. For example, Greenwald gives us a chilling scene in which the weaselly mining company stooge sings, after his public humiliation, sings Conversation with Death. It's a clever foreshadowing of how the mountain community will inevitably be disrupted by the domination of coal. Yet its impact is lessened by its similarity to a similar use of Ralph Stanley's O Death in the current Coen brothers' hit.

Songcatcher is a musical treat, shining a rare spotlight on the traditional ballad, and offering performances of Come All You Fair and Tender Ladies, Lord Randall and Mattie Groves as authentically styled as any archived Library of Congress recording. Country music star Iris DeMent, as a weary farm wife, intones a fine lament accompanied by a weeping fiddle, while blues legend Taj Mahal makes a too-short appearance playing the banjo.

Still, as strong as Greenwald is on the music (with the aid of musical director/composer David Mansfield, who also scored Robert Duvall's The Apostle), she is weak on story. Like Lily Penleric, she is an outsider to this world and her portrait of mountain people, while never condescending, fails to peel back their skin. It's a nice try, and a try worth making -- the story of traditional music in America has long deserved to be told. Yet it makes an old folkie like me (and there are lots of us around) hanker for the overdue definitive film about Appalachian music and culture. Until then, though, Songcatcher's loving tribute will do jes' fine.

Written and
Directed by:

Maggie Greenwald

Starring:
Janet McTeer
Aidan Quinn
Pat Carroll
Jane Adams
Greg Cook
Iris DeMent
Stephanie Roth
David Patrick Kelly
E. Katherine Kerr
Taj Mahal
Muse Watson

Rated:
PG-13 - Parents 
Strongly Cautioned.
Some material may
be inappropriate for
children under 13.

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