Friday June 15, 2001
Call it mountain, country or old-timey, traditional American music is enjoying a cinematic revival. The sounds of Appalachia and the South were central to the success of Joel and Ethan Coen's "O Brother Where Art Thou," so much so that a concert documentary directed by D.A. Pennebaker is scheduled for release later this year. For those who can't wait, "Songcatcher" is here to pick up the slack.
Written and directed by Maggie Greenwald ("The Ballad of Little Jo"), this story of a turn-of-the-century musicologist bent on collecting songs in North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains is most successful when it lets the music have its head.
With the gifted David Mansfield, who is also Greenwald's husband, serving as composer and music director, "Songcatcher" is fully aware of the power and vitality of its songs. The film has done more than put Emmylou Harris on the soundtrack, it has utilized celebrated performers like Iris DeMent, Taj Mahal and the timeless Hazel Dickens as actors as well as singers.
Like its rough-hewn voices, "Songcatcher" is not perfect. Earnest and old-fashioned, with a weakness for mountain melodrama, it's not always as affecting dramatically as it is musically. But it has enough virtues to make it successful, including an unusual story and some fine acting, especially by the powerful Janet McTeer.
McTeer, an accomplished stage actress who was Oscar-nominated for "Tumbleweeds," is formidable and skillful enough to both make us believe in the very strong woman she plays and place the audience on the side of someone who is not always appealing.
That would be Lily Penleric, a doctor of musicology with a passion for the purity and emotion of old English folk songs. It's 1907, and Penleric, fed up with being continually passed over for a full professorship at the university where she teaches, decides to visit her sister Elna (Jane Adams), who helps run a settlement school deep in the Southern mountains.
After hearing the singing of her sister's young student Deladis Slocumb (Metropolitan Opera singer Emmy Rossum), it takes Penleric just a New York minute to realize what's taken for granted today: These local people, because of their isolation, are singing the purest known versions of the old ballads their ancestors brought over with them from England two centuries before.
A bear for the scientific gathering of songs, Penleric determines to scour the neighborhood. Making use of an early phonograph--an instrument previously unknown in those parts--she hopes to cement her professional reputation by collecting these long-hidden melodies and lyrics.
Her key local informant turns out to be Viney Butler, an irascible older woman who does not take to the doctor at first. Viney is played by Pat Carroll, the voice of the Sea Witch in "The Little Mermaid" and something of an irascible veteran herself, who brings a warmth and a naturalness to what could have been a caricature in less sure hands.
Not that it's hard to see why Viney is skittish at first. For McTeer doesn't hesitate to play Penleric as obsessive, preemptory and self-absorbed, someone who's wound as tightly as a banjo string and who disrupts the natural order of things without even trying. Clearly, the doc has to learn to stop and smell the mountain lilac, and Tom Bledsoe is just the man for the job.
Yes, that's Aidan Quinn hidden under a forest of black beard and doing an expert job as Viney's much-traveled grandson, someone, Viney waspishly explains, who's "been to the other world and thinks he knows a lot." Tom takes an instant dislike to the doc, asking, "Do you play music or just steal other people's?" and she returns the favor. Could they possibly be in love?
If this sounds just too idyllic, don't worry. "Songcatcher" throws in all kinds of problems, probably too many, including rapacious coal companies, rampant poverty, wayward husbands and, hardly a surprise, a local intolerance for same-sex couples. Still, the actors work well together (the film won a Special Jury Prize for Outstanding Ensemble Performance at Sundance) and cinematographer Enrique Chediak knows how to make the woods look positively Edenic.
If all else fails, there are those wonderful songs, many of them, like "Matthy Groves" and "Come All You Fair and Tender Ladies," popularized by Joan Baez when she was in her Child ballad period. "I have never heard such singing," says Penleric. "I have never been anywhere where the music is as much a part of life as it is here."
Songcatcher, 2001. PG-13, for sexual content and an intense scene of childbirth. Lions Gate Films and Rigas Entertainment, in association with the Independent Film Channel Productions, present an ErgoArts Production, released by Lions Gate Films. Director Maggie Greenwald. Producers Ellen Rigas Venetis, Richard Miller. Executive producers Jonathan Sehring, Caroline Kaplan. Screenplay Maggie Greenwald. Cinematographer Enrique Chediak. Editor Keith Reamer. Costumes Kasia Walicka Maimone. Music David Mansfield. Production design Ginger Tougas. Art director Molly Mikula. Set decorator Marthe Pineau. Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes. Janet McTeer as Dr. Lily Penleric. Aidan Quinn as Tom Bledsoe. Pat Carroll as Viney Butler. Jane Adams as Elna Penleric. Greg Russell Cook as Fate Honeycutt. Emmy Rossum as Deladis Slocumb.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times