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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 Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

Remember this one from English class?

In London town where I was born,
And where I got my learning,
Sweet William Green took to his bed,
For love of Barbara Allen.

Strangely enough medieval ballads like this one were among my favorite memories from college sophomore English class and what's more I think they could be appealing even to high school kids because a good deal of them are blood-curdling. Poisoning and suicide by lovers ("Barbara Allen"), stabbings of fathers by their sons ("Edward"), drownings on the high seas because of predicted storms ignored by seamen ("Sir Patrick Spens") pop up among other casualties. Then again, a modern kid would want the ballads set to rap and that would kind of destroy the lovely lilt that always undercut the subversive nature of the words. In Maggie Greenwald's exquisitely sensitive and sincere film "Songcatcher," the title character laments the fact that people today may read the words to the songs, but what good are mere statements without the music that makes them soar? Ms. Greenwald, whose previous and largely ignored film "The Ballad of Little Jo" (about a woman in 1866, disgraced by her out-of- wedlock baby, who runs to the West and like Yentl pretends she's a man), comes across once again. With the help of "Little Jo"'s music composer David Mansfield Greenwald has fashioned a film that's a revelation. With a superlative cast acting the roles of mountain people who react to a city slicker in their midst, "Songcatcher" could forever alter your impression of hillbillies.

Filmed on location in the western mountains of North Carolina north of Asheville, "Songcatcher" centers on Janet McTeer in the role of Dr. Lily Penleric who, upon being passed over in 1907 for a promotion to full professor of music (in favor of a male outsider) becomes a feminist albeit in a less aggressive manner than did Suzi Amis's title character in "The Ballad of Little Jo." She quits her job and heads for the hills, aiming to capture Appalachian music from its source and that music's relationship to the Scotch- Irish ballads that were anonymously composed between 1200 and 1700 and passed on through the generations. Taking up residence in a snug wooden cabin with her schoolteacher sister Elna (Jane Adams), she is well on her way to writing her book when she hears the words to several ballads beautifully performed by a teenage girl, Deladis Slocumb (Emmy Rossum). Lily realizes straight away that these ballads are in the pure form not yet known by so-called outlanders (those who do not live in these Appalachian communities). She transcribes the notes and records the songs on a primitive cylinder to be placed by one of those Victrolas you see in the RCA ads now and then.

Two other people change her life as dramatically. One is Viney Butler (Pat Carroll) in an Earth-mother role, shotgun in hand, who knocks the city out of Lily by commanding her to assist in a bloody childbirth. The other is a man with whom she becomes romantically involved--kept apart for a while as Tom Bledsoe (Aidan Quinn), wants her off the property because he considers her writing and recording to be an exploitation of his people.

"Songcatcher" is a happy combination of captivating music sung by the local L'iL Abners either a capella or to the accompaniment of banjos and fiddles and splendid ensemble acting, the performers enacting the types of disputes that even citizens in big cities are a part of--intellectual theft, exploitation by capitalists, Bible-thumping gay bashers to cite a few. McTeer does a super job, wide-eyed throughout a good deal of the proceedings as she watches a manager of a mining company buying up land at Depression prices from the poor denizens, and again in the middle of a fiery confrontation that erupts when one of the villagers discovers her sister, Elna, in flagrante with her teaching partner and lover, Harriet Tolliver (E. Katherine Kerr).

I took issue with two points, however minor. In one case, the educated mining company manager holds that Johann Sebastian Bach's music is superior to folk songs. Lily responds that this is like comparing apples and oranges "to the detriment of both traditions." Contrary to her rejoinder, one could hardly say that the simple, repetitive melodies of the mountain people, however lovely, can compare with the profound variations of, say, the Brandenburg concerti or the Passacaglia and Fugue in B minor. In another segment of the story, Tom tells Lily that the outlanders will never be interested in the music of the mountain people because they consider hillbillies "dirty and illiterate." fact for all the goodness in their hearts, for the most part those depicted in "Songcatcher" simply are.

I was hoping that at some point in the 109 minute picture, Lily would explain why these medieval ballads (which she erroneously calls "ancient") are so bloody in contrast to the purely romantic songs of, say, the U.S. during the 1950's as performed on TV in "Your Hit Parade." These cavils aside, "Songcatcher" is an absolutely graceful and enchanting look at music that is so pure you may just come away wishing that all the punk rock, acid rock and even rock 'n' roll could just disappear so that we can at least return to the innocence and charm of the folk era that informed the generation of Pete Seeger, the Weavers, and the like.

Copyright 2000 Harvey Karten

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