-- 2000, written/directed by Maggie Greenwald, PG-13, 112 min.
The year 2000 brought two films that highlighted the contribution of Appalachian folk music to America. One was Joel and Ethan Coen’s O Brother Where Art Thou?, whose soundtrack has not only become popular beyond the movie itself, but has spawned the subsequent live concert recording Down from the Mountain. The other, lesser known, film was Songcatcher, which, incidentally, has also led to two soundtrack albums.
Unlike O Brother, which created an almost surreal vision of Depression-era southern America, Maggie Greenwald’s Songcatcher strives for a more accurate look at the Appalachian mountain culture where musicologists discovered the preservation of folksongs from the British Isles. The year is about 1908, and the story centers around Dr. Lily Penleric (Janet McTeer), a female music professor who is continually passed over for promotion. One summer she decides to join her schoolteacher sister in the Appalachian mountains. Amidst the culture shock, Penleric finds that the folktunes she had been teaching about in college—and had thought were no longer in use anywhere—have been preserved by the “mountain people,” albeit with the introduction of distinctive singing styles.
Penleric makes it her sole objective to collect and record as many of these ballads as possible. She hauls a wax cylinder recording machine up the mountain and sets to work recording and transcribing the ballads (how many movies feature recording and transcription as a major plot point?). Up to this point, the movie is highly accurate, and it gives a great picture of the work of the early comparative musicologists. In particular, the movie pays homage to Cecil Sharp, the British musicologist who did come to America and discover the folksong preservation in the Appalachians. The problems Penleric faces as she tries to convince the locals that their singing is indeed valuable, and that she is not trying to steal the songs away or make profit from them, are exactly the same situations any fieldworker expects to experience even today. Scenes of Penleric coaxing out more songs and wearing out her assistants are hilarious. Especially amusing is Viney Butler (Pat Carroll), a “granny” figure whose song repertoire seems to consist entirely of grotesque lyrics, all sung with perfect cheer and humor.
Actual musicians are featured in several cameo roles (although sometimes the actors themselves learned to sing well enough to do their own performances in the movie). Sadly, bluesman Taj Mahal only has a very small cameo appearance in the film. But folksinger Iris DeMent is featured in the single best scene of the entire film. After her character receives bad news about losing family land, she sits on her porch and sings “Poor Saro.” The camera is fixed on her face, and the song is not broken up or mixed in with a symphonic score. It is a poignantly beautiful scene, of a quality rarely seen in a Hollywood film.
Unfortunately, director Greenwald had a dual purpose for Songcatcher: first, to celebrate American folk music, but also to lament the oppression of women in the Appalachian culture. Hardly a moment in the film goes by without some mention, rarely subtle, of how women are downtrodden and not allowed to be who they truly are. This comes to a climax when a closeted lesbian couple is found out by the community. This divides the town in two, and in the penultimate scene, everyone is gathered in church and a big argument breaks out: “They’re evil and can’t keep living here!” versus “How can you be so judgmental and intolerant!”
It is a shame that a movie that could just celebrate great music—and there is plenty of it throughout the course of the film—has this second agenda that seems so incongruous with the setting. From a cursory glance at the reviews posted to www.imdb.com, I see that I am not alone in feeling that the movie would have been better without the feminist slant pushed so much to the forefront. Additionally, though the movie was rated PG-13, I felt that a few scenes between the lesbian characters were explicit enough to rule out family viewing. However, the DVD format allows for easy creation of “the good parts version.” The DVD also includes great extra features, the best of which is the extended scenes, giving more time to the musicians’ performances (including Taj Mahal and Iris DeMent). The commentary track, by Greenwald and music director David Mansfield, is also enlightening and worth listening to.
Those interested in just the music may want to check out the soundtrack album. The album does not include every song heard in the movie, while it does include some performances that were not in the movie at all. In addition, a recent CD release, Songcatcher II: The Tradition that Inspired the Movie, contains classic archival recordings of songs similar to those in the movie.
--reviewed by Neil R. Coulter
Published in Vol.1, No.3 of