Taking to the Purest of Mountain Airs

Gary Dretzka is a Los Angeles-based staff writer for the Chicago Tribune

In "Songcatcher," filmmaker Maggie Greenwald's loving ode to America's musical heritage, fresh-faced newcomer Emmy Rossum plays an Appalachian orphan blessed with a heavenly voice. But although the curly-haired New Yorker may sing the heck out of the traditional ballad "Barbara Allen," an expert in roots music she's not.

This becomes clear about halfway through an interview with the 14-year-old charmer, over bowls of spaghetti on the patio of a Sunset Plaza bistro. She's a smart cookie, so imagine her embarrassment when she is forced to acknowledge her unfamiliarity with much of the work of the artists featured in "Songcatcher," which opens Friday in selected theaters, including such gifted troubadours as Iris Dement, Taj Mahal and Hazel Dickens. The film's splendid soundtrack album features Rossum's lovely voice paired with the likes of Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, Maria McKee and Gillian Welch.

Before abandoning the Metropolitan Opera's children's chorus for Hollywood, Rossum shared the stage with the likes of Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti. Getting her up to speed on folk music, however, necessitated a trip to Tower Records--and the use of her publicist's American Express card. By the time the shopping spree was over, Rossum was the proud owner of a starter kit of American musical history.

At the same time the bluegrass-inspired soundtrack to "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" is making a run toward double-platinum territory, the film and songs in "Songcatcher" could spark interest in traditional mountain music. Rossum probably won't play any more hillbilly waifs, but it's never too late to learn the difference between the Carter Family and Destiny's Child.

"The movie's casting director had called the director of the Metropolitan Opera's chorus, and asked if they had any students who could act as well as sing," said Rossum, who was 12 during filming. "I had just left the opera, because I had outgrown the children's costumes, and had come out here with my mom for pilot season. I had decided to become an actress, because I loved being on stage.

"I totally fell in love with the script they sent me, and, instead of sending a tape of myself back to New York, I decided it was important to audition in person. Luckily, my mom had some frequent-flier miles that she was saving for Europe." Greenwald, who wrote and directed "Songcatcher," describes her fourth feature film as "an academic adventure story ... like 'Indiana Jones' with music." Set in 1907, the movie tells the fictional story of ethnomusicologist Lily Penleric (Janet McTeer) who escapes to the mountain home of her sister Elna after a well-earned promotion falls victim to turn-of-the-century sexism. In the course of being introduced to Elna's hardscrabble neighbors, Penleric is stunned to hear a cappella renditions of the same ballads she had been teaching her college students, but in a far less sterile, academic framework.

When Rossum's painfully shy Deladis Slocumb bursts into song, Penleric is inspired to capture the music of the hollows for the rest of the world to hear. She does this by transcribing the songs heard on her jaunts and, later, importing a primitive recording device.

Coincidental to her archival mission, Penleric falls in love with a well-traveled but cautious mountain man (Aidan Quinn). Their testy relationship parallels the courtship of Deladis, who's barely in her teens, by a recklessly impulsive 17-year-old named Fate.

Rossum, a close friend of "Malcolm in the Middle" star Frankie Muniz, said she was attracted to the project because it allowed her to sing something other than opera, but not "bubble gum" either. It was also a chance to disappear, at least for a month, into a character unlike the bicoastal show-biz kid she was becoming.

"I went into the mountains and just listened to the kids I met," Rossum said, when asked how she picked up the rural mannerisms of her character. "Deladis' singing wasn't at all refined. It doesn't come from her diaphragm, so the whole placement was different for me. Maggie wasn't really going for classic beauty, though. It was more about feeling, so I just went out there and sang my heart out."

Fans of contemporary folk music will be pleasantly surprised to hear how much Rossum sounds like Dement and Welch. Like those two artists, the Manhattan native easily could be mistaken for one of Mother Maybelle Carter's great-grandchildren. Rossum and her cast mates "would sit in this little hotel room in the middle of this North Carolina town, which was about three blocks long, and sing for each other," Rossum said. "It was easy for me to pick up, because, at the Met, we sang in a lot of different accents. Basically, we had to know how to reproduce sound [phonetically], because we couldn't understand what we were singing

Greenwald's husband, composer David Mansfield, became an integral part of the project. He recruited the musicians, some of whom also joined the cast, and incorporated various mountain styles into his score along with the adaptations of real folk songs.

"I think a lot of people will find that this music sounds unlike anything they've heard before, yet, at the same time, it gives you a clear indication of where American pop and folk music came from," Mansfield said. "This is one of the most compellingly emotional parts of American culture, and it affects the world at large. Kids listening to Bruce Springsteen in Prague, Moscow and Beijing are really listening to stuff that had its roots in Appalachia. What I hoped is that people watching 'Songcatcher' will get that same kind of excitement that people did when they first heard this music almost a century ago."

Greenwald based McTeer's character on Olive Dame Campbell, a real-life songcatcher who surveyed the Blue Ridge with her minister husband in 1908. Campbell collected regional arts and crafts, and transcribed songs that later would be published by British musicologist Cecil J. Sharp.

"The songs, many of which go back to the 1600s, are sexy, violent, political . . . outrageous," said Greenwald, who is best known for the respected 1993 western "The Ballad of Little Jo" and noir thriller "The Kill-Off." "They're much hipper than most of the songs today."

Not surprisingly, perhaps, there is a strong feminist subtext in "Songcatcher." It's clear that Penleric is denied a full professorship primarily because she is a woman in a man's world. She can sleep with her academic peers, but not be accorded the same rank and privileges. At the same time, her sister and another female teacher risk banishment and physical harm by living together, as a couple, in their mountain cabin.

Likewise, under the influence of Penleric, Deladis finds the courage to challenge a status quo that would require her to submit to a man who likely would become an abusive, restrictive husband.

Notably, it's the women in "Songcatcher" who keep their families from starving and the mountain culture from disappearing. As for her experiences with sexism, the 45-year-old Greenwald has little to say other than to acknowledge that, yes, it's odd that she hasn't been hired to write and direct more than a few projects in the last 10 years, and, yes, she thinks it has a lot to do with institutional sexism in Hollywood.

"Underneath the primary story line, the movie was commenting on change . . . how technology was affecting rural life, women's roles, race," she said. "The movie will resonate with today's audiences, because we're all still going through similar changes."

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