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SONGCATCHER(director/writer: Maggie Greenwald; cinematographer: Enrique Chediak; editor: Keith Reamer; music: David Mansfield; cast: Janet McTeer (Dr. Lily Penleric), Aidan Quinn (Tom Bledsoe), Pat Carroll (Viney Butler), Jane Adams (Elna Penleric), Gregory Cook (Fate Honeycutt), Iris DeMent (Rose Gentry), E. Katherine Kerr (Harriet), David Patrick Kelly (Earl Giddens), Emmy Rossum (Deladis), Michael Goodwin (Wallace Aldrich), Michael Harding (Reese Kinkaid), Stephanie Roth Haberle (Alice Kinkaid), Iris DeMent (Rose Gentry); Runtime: 112; Lions Gate Films; 2000)
“The film is beautifully photographed like a Hallmark tourist postcard.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This mildly provocative high-brow art-house film is ruined by all its sincere but gushy messages. It is set in the Appalachian mountains in the early 1900s. It channels in on women’s rights, pure folk music, and clashes between the values of city and country folk as far as culture and education. But everyone comes out looking like a stick figure.

The folk music with songs like ‘Barbara Allen,’ ‘Two Sisters,’ and ‘Lord Randall,’ performed by such favorites as Emmylou Harris, Iris DeMent, Hazel Dickens and Taj Mahal are great, but the melodrama was dull fare. The story never caught fire until it literally did catch fire–which came too late in the film to save its story.

The film is beautifully photographed like a Hallmark tourist postcard with added inspirational messages about the wonderful uplifting ballads, which gave the film a wearisome tone to live up to.

Dr. Lily Penleric (McTeer), an uptight but brave musicologist, is denied tenure again because of sexist discrimination at an an unidentified all-male East Coast university. She kisses her married professor friend Wallace goodbye, after calling him a coward for not backing her with the university and quits out of protest. She joins her sister Elna (Adams), who is partners with her friend Harriet Tolliver (E. Katherine Kerr), in a remote mountain school in North Carolina and learns of the pure unrecorded folk music in the mountains, where songs are passed on from as far back as 200 hundred years ago when the settlers came to America from Scotland and Ireland. She forges a new career by accident as she becomes a collector of that traditional music, sends for phonographs to record the locals, befriends the many local talented musicians, and battles the many locals who are hostile and filled with bemusement at her efforts. They call her an outlander and a songcatcher, and wonder what a single woman is doing here.

Lily’s first conquest is a sweet young girl living at the school, Deladis (Rossum), who sings in a pure voice all the authentic songs her family taught her, and is recorded on the Edison cylinder. She then meets another hillybilly mountain granny, who can be generous when she gets to know you. Viney Butler (Pat Carroll) gives the film its one authentic colorful character, even though she’s sentimentally pictured as a nurturing earth woman filled with common sense wisdom. She, nevertheless, manages to bring to the film a warm and fuzzy country feeling about her that seems genuine. Because of her Lily has a real backwoods experience by helping in a troublesome childbirth. Viney also helps bring some romance into her dull life by pushing onto her widowed grandson, whose first wife died at childbirth and second from illness, Tom Bledsoe (Quinn). He is at first hostile to the songcatcher, calling her exhilaration of the music nothing but exploitation. He’s also a great banjo player, as it seems everyone in them mountains has folk music in their blood. Their romance seemed artificial and lifeless, as if it was merely tacked onto the story. If they married, as the ‘feel good’ ending suggests, then I think she’ll die from boredom and be his third wife who dies.

There are a few villains to go along with all the love invested in the music. Fate, the boyfriend of Deladis, spots Harriet and Elna in a lesbian embrace in the woods and ignorantly reacts by getting another redneck to burn down the school and all the music Lily collected. The local coal mining company, represented by Earl Giddens, is shown to be actively duping the ignorant locals into selling them land at bargain-basement prices. Religion is shown to keep the people ignorant, telling them that anything they don’t understand comes from the Devil. The preacher justifies the burning down of the school with the women inside because they are “whores of Babylon.”

The story is pat, the action is dull, and it has too many clichés.

The music is the thing here, not the conventional story about a typecast stodgy feminist heroine.

The film was written and directed by Maggie Greenwald (“The Ballad of Little Jo”), as primarily a modern feminist story that offers up a few surprises (a lesbian sex scene) when it isn’t being conventional.

REVIEWED ON 12/6/2001 GRADE: C +

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”