SONGCATCHER, written and directed by Maggie Greenwald, is a charming film
that could almost be a Hallmark Hall of Fame television movie given its
Norman Rockwell brand of folksy Americana. Hallmark, however, would
probably not be comfortable with the amount of implicit sex going on and
would want to cut short the songs which fill almost every scene. The film
was a hit at 2000's Sundance Film Festival. It's an unusual picture,
essentially a musical of folk ballads. It may not have much a narrative
drive, but it sure can carry a tune.
The story, set in the early 1900s, concerns a Doctor of Music, Dr. Lily
Penleric (Janet McTeer, TUMBLEWEEDS), who takes a leave from her university
when she is passed over again for a full professorship. A feminist, she
bitterly resents the sexual discrimination. Even the married professor with
whom she has been having an affair voted against her. She's a modern woman
with a sophisticated set of values who believes in sexual freedom among
heterosexuals. Only her sister's lesbianism troubles her. Jane Adams
(HAPPINESS) plays her sister, Elna Penleric. It is to Elna's school high up
in the mountains to which Lily goes for her break.
While in the mountains, Lily makes an incredible discovery for a
musicologist like herself. She finds that the locals sing a pure version of
old English folk ballads. She takes it upon herself to write down the songs
and to record them on cylinders. Resenting "outlanders" like Lily, the
mountain folks, especially Tom Bledsoe (Aidan Quinn), at first are leery of
having anything to do with her. Tom figures that she is "exploiting" them
and "stealing" their music. Yep, you guessed it. The liberal Lily will
soon be shedding her clothes for Tom.
The movie is best when it lets the music flow, which is most of the time.
The songs, both romantic and tragic, are uniformly lovely, regardless of the
singing ability of the person singing them. Less effective are the moments
when the movie tries to go on message. In one of these clichéd moments,
Ambrose McFarland (Steve Boles), the wealthy head of the coal company, which
is trying to buy the land for fifty cents an acre, doesn't believe in the
importance of Elna's school. "Educating these savages is a waste of money,"
he says. Later he offers a huge donation to the school anyway but only as a
ruse to get what he wants.
A movie like this that is built with a collection of little incidents has
trouble ending. The dramatic incident that Greenwald comes up with is a bit
too easy to foretell and is allowed to occur too easily by those involved.
But the story has to end somehow, and the way Greenwald chooses is
reasonable even if not especially inspired. SONGCATCHER leaves you in a
state of bliss as the music floats through your mind like a billowy cloud on
a lazy summer day.
SONGCATCHER runs 1:52. It is rated PG-13 for sexual content and an intense
scene of childbirth and would be acceptable for kids around 11 or 12 and up.
Copyright © 2001 Steve Rhodes