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movie reviewmovie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4 Movie Review: Songcatcher

Starring: Janet McTeer, Aidan Quinn
Director: Maggie Greenwald
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 113 Minutes
Release Date: December 2000
Genres: Drama, Music

*Also starring: Pat Carroll, Jane Adams, Taj Mahal, David Patrick Kelly, Mike Harding, Iris DeMent, Emmy Rossum

Review by Steve Rhodes
3 stars out of 4

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

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