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:: Songcatcher

Nothing extravagant, nothing gimmickry; “Songcatcher” is a unique charmer that may not normally be the sort of film to draw a large audience. But, in winning a Special Jury Prize for an Ensemble Cast at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival, the film shows a well-researched script and incorporates music unlike no other film that I’ve seen. 

Sert in the early 20th century, the story tells of Dr Lily Penleric (Janet McTeer), a refined musicologist specialising in English folk ballads who journeys to a remote mountain village to visit her sister Elna (Jane Adams). Elna runs a small school. Lily had applied for a Professor’s role at her university and was passed over, thereby stifling her ambition. But her visit opens her up to a history of music – ballads & folk music – passed down from earlier generations that originated in Great Britain a long time ago.

Lily wants to catalogue the songs of the indigenous musicians and singers who are rumoured to have preserved and developed English folk songs from centuries ago. It comes as a real shock to her to hear these mountain people singing the very songs she has studied. Therefore, her passion is displayed in generating the sheet music and recording some of the music on Edison cylinders.

Meanwhile, Elna has a dedicated job of helping the mountain people (Appalachians) move beyond their poverty. Lily learns to adapt from the sophisticated city life to the simplistic country life, although there is resentment to her motives of tracking this music. After initially meeting some joyous responses from those willing to sing for Lily so she could save the songs, a local man Tom *Aidan Quinn) starts to think that she is invading the lives of “his” people. He changes his tune when he falls in love with Lily. As the story continues, we get the obvious “confrontational” sequences of baby birth, an ugly church sermon, and the hatred towards lesbianism.

The dramatic moments are beautifully captured by the lush cinematography. But it’s the rich musical heritage of Appalachia that is the dominating element. Director Maggie Greenwald understands that richness and uncanny beauty. She rakes the film off into a flight of fancy that is quite delightful, and cloaks the film in good taste, to the point where even some violent and sexual encounters in the final section are rendered as politely as possible. 

There aren’t any bad performances in the film, though some members of the cast might look hamstrung by their roles. They all generally play sentimental roles, rather than characters. But they stand up wonderfully as their Sundance award indicates. Janet McTeer portrays Lily as a strong person of indomitable spirit and steely determination. The other cast members include Emmy Rossum’s terrific performance as a sweet-voiced orphan. Aidan Quinn and Jane Adams provide excellent support. 

The music provides the soul. “Songcatcher” has a gentle charm that holds great depth. The exploration of the old American music means a new life and a new audience. The film is one to sit back and enjoy.