Songcatcher

on June 15, 2001 by Annlee Ellingson
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   Beautifully photographed, brilliantly performed and richly textured, Maggie Greenwald's "Songcatcher" stars critically acclaimed Janet McTeer as Dr. Lily Penleric, a musicologist overlooked for a promotion at her male-dominated university for the last time. She retires to the Appalachian countryside to spend the summer with her sister, a teacher running a struggling rural school.

   While there, Lily makes the startling discovery that the local folk songs are distinctive versions of English ballads, probably the purest forms in existence. She sets out to catalogue them scientifically, recording them on a phonograph and transcribing them onto sheet music. Her project is met with skepticism, though, by Tom (Aidan Quinn), who accuses her of exploiting his friends and relatives. She argues that she is preserving and sharing his culture with the world.

   This debate is the main one among many in "Songcatcher," a picture that also explores the small, conservative community's persecution of alternative lifestyles as well as the threat of mining. These themes, in addition to a handful of love stories, are all fully fleshed out--quite a feat for a film less than two hours long--with the exception of a storyline about a wild woman who lives in the woods, which adds a little mythology to the setting but is ultimately severely superfluous.

   McTeer lives up to the Oscar buzz surrounding her "Tumbleweeds" performance, portraying this strong, slightly self-involved woman with confidence and grace. Quinn, underused in the industry, is chameleon-like in his role, hiding behind a beard and grime but allowing his talent to break through the cosmetic barriers.

   The setting, of course, is gorgeous, secluded in the mountains where a trip to the neighbors' takes all day, two vehicles cannot pass each other on the hillside road and a phonograph is impossible to transport. One wonders if it was equally tough in real life to capture the shots of lush, verdant forest and meadows.

   And then there is the soundtrack, replete with complete versions of the quaint music of these people, songs such as "Barbara Allen" that we have all heard before but never quite like this. Music lovers will want to catch this one for sure. Starring Janet McTeer, Aidan Quinn, Pat Carroll, Jane Adams, Gregory Cook and Iris Dement. Directed and written by Maggie Greenwald. Produced by Ellen Rigas Venetis and Richard Miller. A Trimark release. Drama. Not yet rated. Running time: 113 min

Tags: Starring Janet McTeer, Aidan Quinn, Pat Carroll, Jane Adams, Gregory Cook, Iris Dement. Directed and written by Maggie Greenwald, Produced by Ellen Rigas Venetis, Richard Miller, Trimark, Drama
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