Songcatcher Directed by Maggie Greenwald
The ballads of mountaineers, descendants of the Irish, Scottish and German immigrants who began settling in the Appalachian mountains in the 1700s, provide the central focus of Songcatcher. Apparently, they felt the East Coast was already too full of folk; in search of solitude, they retreated to the mountains, eventually to be tagged as crude, illiterate savages by those they left behind in the city.
But they had their music, songs of heartbreaking poignancy passed down through generations, performed on homemade instruments. Songcatcher is set in the early 1900s, at just the moment when the trappings of modernity encroach on the livelihoods of the hill people. Those who have ventured in from the outside world find the mountaineers’ songs “quaint” and their folk art “authentic,” reeking of the soul that’s been drummed out of urban dwellers.
Standing in for those urbanites is Dr. Lily Penleric (Janet McTeer), a professor of music who has been turned down yet again for a promotion at the university where she works. She quits and moves in with her sister, who runs a remote school in the mountains, and becomes entranced by the folk music of the locals — “ballads” in her parlance, “love songs” in theirs. She then finds a new goal as a songcatcher, or collector of songs, recording them on a primitive machine that uses wax cylinders, and transcribing them into proper musical scores.
Songcatcher touches on a number of themes. Lily’s entree into Appalachian society is initially hindered by the mountaineers’ suspicions of outsiders, most of whom seem to want to buy up their land for the rich coal deposits. Tom Bledsoe (Aidan Quinn), who’s been to (in his mother’s words) “the other world” and returned unscathed, reveals his own savvy when he points out to Lily that the songs she’s transcribing might be theirs, but when they’re published, she’ll be the one getting the royalties. Yes, a bona fide argument about publishing rights!
But nothing is examined too closely, which gives Songcatcher a formulaic, movie-of-the-week feel (there’s even a subplot about homosexuality that feels awkward and forced). The figures in the story seem less characters than symbols: Lily represents the good side of modern society, while evil developer Earl Giddens (David Patrick Kelly) represents the bad; Tom and his gruff-matriarch-with-a-heart-of-gold mama Vinny (Pat Carroll) represent the good side of mountain life, while stubborn, cocksure handyman Fate (Greg Russell Cook) represents the bad. (And can you guess by his name that he’s the catalyst for much of the emotional action?)
But the film is blessed with a beautiful soundtrack, featuring the actors doing their own singing (it works), and musicians cast as actors. Iris DeMent’s “Pretty Saro” is a highlight, Taj Mahal drops in to play a fierce banjo on “Pickin’ That Thang (Dr. Joe)”, and Hazel Dickens contributes to a heartbreaking rendition of “Conversation With Death”. Snippets of other songs are worked continually into the score as well. If the storyline falters, at least the music remains the heart and soul of Songcatcher.