Songcatcher (2000, wide release in 2001)
Written and directed by Maggie Greenwald. Photography, Enrique Chediak. Editing, Keith Reamer. Production design, Ginger Tougas. Music, David Mansfield. Cast: Janet McTeer (Lily Penleric), Emmy Rossum (Deladis Slocumb), Jane Adams (Elna Penleric), E. Katherine Kerr (Harriet Tolliver), Pat Carroll (Viney Butler), Aidan Quinn (Tom Bledsoe), et al. Produced by Ellen Rigas Venetis and Richard Miller. A Lions Gate release. 109 minutes. PG-13. At the New Art Theatre.
Movies that deal with Appalachia are mostly above average. They make up a small subgenre, by and large non-commercial. Those films have something to say, come from the hands --as well as hearts and minds -- of independent filmmakers and are not directed to mass, young in age or mind audiences.
"Songcatcher" is the fourth feature film by writer-director Maggie Greenwald, whose previous movie, "The Ballad of Little Jo," (1993) was fine, original, solidly feminist and well-received. Based on a real person, it dealt with a mid-1800s educated woman from the East who had an out-of-wedlock child, was kicked out by her family, and went to the rough, male-dominated West... disguised as a man and keeping that identity for years.
The new movie is set in 1907. British-born Janet McTeer, whose part in "Tumbleweeds" got her an Oscar nomination plus other Best Actress Awards, is the central character. She plays Lily Penleric, Ph.D., an associate professor of musicology in an unnamed college or university in or near Appalachia. Her specialty (and passion) is folk music. And she expects to be promoted to full, tenured professor. But in a brutally short and realistic satire of Academia, her promotion is denied, mainly because the institution is hiring a big-name musicologist from England. Lily's lover, a married full professor, was supposed to plead her case, but chickened out. So the irate Lily leaves the place and travels to the Appalachians to visit her younger sister Elna, who, with another woman, runs a tiny school.
One musical thing leading to another, Lily embarks on major, detailed research on (and discovery of) Appalachian songs that the locals' ancestors had brought from England, Scotland and Ireland about 200 years ago. It is a true treasure trove, a feather in Dr. Lily's cap as well as a potentially modest source of income when the songs get printed and published.
The locals, typically suspicious of strangers, need reassurance, which Lily slowly manages to provide. She becomes known as the "Songcatcher," a word that has a double meaning as Lily imports another song catcher, a primitive recording machine with Edison wax cylinders.
The equipment is heavy. Tenacious Lily, with some reluctant help, manages to carry it up through and up the mountains. This pretty heroic labor of love reminds me of Werner Herzog's film "Fitzcarraldo" in which the eponymous hero (whose ultimate aim is to build an opera house in the jungle of South America) has a large boat carried up and down a riverside mountain.
The defenses of the mountain people in our movie are not easy to break down. Granny Viney, the major fount of precious ballads, takes time in becoming an ally, but she does. Lily's is helped by young teenager Deladis who is an orphan, was adopted by Granny, and has an extraordinary good voice.
Tom Bledsoe (Aidan Quinn), Granny's grandson, is the main male character, a relatively sophisticated fellow who has been out of Appalachia but preferred to come back to it. More than most, he is aware of the encroachments of industry into the life and traditions of the mountain folk. His initial reaction to Lily's recordings is "First the lumber companies take our trees. Now you are taking our songs."
Indeed, the lumber people and the coal companies are out to get major profits, not only at the expense of the frugal but not unhappy ways of the mountain denizens, but by downright cheating them. One capitalist agent is a now citified local who returns to grab potential coal-producing land. (But will at some point, during a "flatfooting" dance, step lively, sing and pluck strings.) An old man will yield his land of 50 acres for a shocking dollar per acre. And at a rather caricatural picnic, wealthy city swells overtly plan to take over as much as possible. Their ally is a preacher who wants to give the locals "a Christian education," read "civilize the savages." But in reality, coal is the reason.
The movie has excellent cinematography and natural lighting.There is also much authenticity in the people, sights and sounds. Some cliches too.To a great extent these issue from the filmmaker's not-so-hidden political, feminist agenda which is both valide and credible-- but eventually it can make the film choppy and episodic. A jealous mistress shoots her lover dead. There is a sudden discovery of a lesbian couple in action. Almost simultaneously the old formula of antagonism turning into love makes an unlikely couple (with hot sex) of Lily and Tom. Earlier we had had a scene of painful childbirth. Later we get a sequence of moonshiners burning down the little school (and all of Lily's doeuments and recordings) as retribution for lesbianism. The wrap-up is gauche, makeshift.
Nonetheless, there are very good moments in the film. The music is interesting, although one wishes that a few of the least important ballads had been replaced by other Appalachian items such as the Christmas carols "I wonder as I wander" or "Jesus., Jesus rest your head."